A Writer’s Journey
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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.
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Finally, some good news: Elena Ferrante is writing again.
Last year, after Ferrante’s identity was allegedly outed by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti — despite her oft-stated desire to remain anonymous — many worried that the pseudonymous author of the Neapolitan novels would never write again. But much like Lila Cerullo taking up arms at Bruno Soccavo’s sausage factory (shoutout to my fellow Ferrante-heads!), your literary girl crush isn’t about to let some silly man crush her spirit.
According to an interview with her publishers in the Italian literary newsletter Il Libraio, translated in The Guardian, Ferrante is putting pen to paper once more. “I know she is writing, but at the moment I cannot say anything more,” revealed publisher Sandro Ferrari, who adds there are no plans for a novel to come out next year.
Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome
New work is understood to be a novel separate from TV screenplay writer is working on for adaptation of Neapolitan series
Elena Ferrante is back. And she’s busy.
It has been just over a year since the Italian novelist behind My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the highly acclaimed Neapolitan series was outed by an investigative journalist who claimed to have discovered her true identity.
Since then, fans of Elena Ferrante, who has always written under a pen name, had reason to worry she might not return. In interviews over the years, Ferrante suggested that her anonymity was a vital component of her work. Being unknown, she said, gave her the space and liberty to focus on her writing, free from the “anxiety of notoriety” or the temptation to censor herself.
The investigative journalist Claudio Gatti reported last October that Ferrante’s true name was Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator whose middle-class background differed from that fostered by Elena Ferrante, which more closely resembled the struggling background of her two protagonists. Gatti was criticised for a gross violation of the writer’s privacy and some believed he would be blamed if Ferrante disappeared from public life.
However, a recent interview with Ferrante’s publishers in Il Libraio, an Italian literary newsletter, included one line that could give fans relief: “I know she is writing, but at the moment I cannot say anything more,” said Sandro Ferri, who heads the publishing house Ediozioni E/O with his wife, Sandra Ozzola.
But Ferri said there were no plans for a new Ferrante novel to be published in 2018.
The publishers declined to offer any more details. But the new work is understood to be separate from the screenplay Ferrante is working on for a television series based on the Neapolitan novels, which will air on HBO and the Italian broadcaster RAI.
by Nick Vivarelli
My Brilliant Friend
Rai and HBO have teamed up on this eight-episode adaptation of the first of Elena Ferrante’s four bestselling “Neapolitan Novels” about the deep friendship and rivalry between two inextricably bound women starting in 1950s Naples. Director Saverio Costanzo directs; series is co-produced by Fandango and FremantleMedia, which is also handling international distribution.
by Nick Vivarelli
After churning out pedestrian shows for decades, Italian state broadcaster Rai is making a major push into the global TV arena thanks to a more ambitious mindset that has spawned high-end hit “Medici: Masters of Florence,” and will soon see series “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Name of the Rose” compete for audiences around the world.
As Italian high-end content becomes a hot international commodity thanks to groundbreaking shows such as Sky’s “Gomorrah” and “The Young Pope,” the pubcaster that produces roughly 70% of Italian TV fiction is ready to seize the moment. Rai is putting its own creative stamp on the country’s high-end TV output and fueling a burst of vibrancy in Italy’s TV community.
In a related break with the past, Rai is also venturing into bold business models by teaming up with Netflix on the streaming giant’s first Italian original, “Suburra,” and with HBO on “My Brilliant Friend,” which is based on the first of the four “Neapolitan Novels” by Elena Ferrante. “Friend” will mark HBO’s first completely subtitled project.
“Rai, like all other European public service broadcasters, has had to rethink its role, faced with a changing market which is increasingly global,” says Eleonora Andreatta, who heads its Rai Fiction unit. “It had to think about its identity as a great content producer. And that identity is to focus on Italian creativity, Italian culture, history and tradition.”
The first project of this new Rai era is the English-language “Medici,” which sold widely, including to Netflix for the U.S., after scoring stellar ratings locally on its Rai 1 flagship channel. Framed as a thriller, the first season, toplining Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) as well as Dustin Hoffman, played well domestically with younger viewers who are not typically Rai 1’s core demographic and became the most tweeted series of 2016 in Italy.
When “Medici” debuted, Andrea Scrosati, who is in charge of content for Sky in Italy — a Rai rival — tweeted that this was a success for the entire TV industry.
“It was a fresh approach to a story that I think a lot of Italians think they know, but probably don’t know as well as they imagine,” showrunner Frank Spotnitz says.
The second season of “Medici,” toplining Sean Bean, started shooting in September in Tuscany with Jon Cassar (“24”) and Itay’s Jan Michelini sharing directorial duties. It will “mix historical drama with a coming-of-age tale,” says Andreatta.
Cameras start rolling in October on “Brilliant Friend,” being shot by Italian auteur Saverio Costanzo on the outskirts of Naples. The entire neighborhood of Gianturco, where Ferrante’s novel is set, has been meticulously rebuilt for the series. The show will be in the Neapolitan dialect.
It was easy to get Rai and HBO to agree to board this project “because they both understood that there were enough elements within these novels to make them a big success both on Rai1 and HBO,” says Lorenzo Mieli, head of Fremantle Italy, which is producing in tandem with Domenico Procacci’s Fandango.
Andreatta, who calls Ferrante’s work “one of the most powerful and universal stories of female friendship,” says Rai “felt very strongly” that it “belongs to the realm of what European public service television does.” She admits that airing it in primetime on Rai 1, in a drastic departure from the more mainstream local dramas that have been Rai’s staples for ages, will be a gamble, but believes that the Italian TV audience “is a lot more willing to be challenged and stimulated than what we used to think.”
“The Name of the Rose,” which will start shooting at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios in January, co-produced with Wild Bunch TV, is a further indication of Rai’s new international course — “Stories that don’t just belong to Italy, but to the world,” as Andreatta puts it. Italy’s Giacomo Battiato will direct the eight-episode English-language TV adaptation of Umberto Eco’s bestseller.
“There is lots of curiosity and attention toward Italian TV,” says one of the “Rose” producers, Carlo Degli Esposti. “For the first time we are finding that Rai is receptive and becoming a very important driver to provide the oxygen to develop the Italian market’s firepower.”
(…. ) The desire to uncover our one true voice, the dread of hearing what it has to say: This seems to me the tension of modern life, the thing that has us searching for a cell signal on yoga retreat. Being in a place where nothing has an agenda for your attention, as Axelrod found, means looking and listening in an unguarded way. “Natural curiosities and affinities emerge,” as he puts it, “becoming the filters for experience.” How we breathe in the world, then, defaults to a function of an unbidden part of identity, rather than a function of what others want us to be — or, perhaps even more crucially, how we want others to think we are.
Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose pseudonymity became part of her mystique, once wrote to me in an email interview, “If my book were publicly mine from the beginning, I would be careful not to damage my image, I would censor myself.” Writing was a “battle against lying. Only with the confidence of anonymity can I decide occasionally to publish. In the end, if I’m forced to choose, I prefer to lose the role of writer rather than spoil my passion for writing — that’s the way it’s always been.” When she was allegedly unmasked by an Italian investigative journalist, her fans were outraged at the violation. It was invasive, they argued, which it was, but it seemed to me that not only were they defending Ferrante from the indignity of having her financial and real-estate records unveiled, they were also defending their own right not to know, to be free to imagine that she was, in fact, Elena Greco, the narrator of her Neapolitan Novels, the woman they knew with the intimacy and deep interiority only possible in literature.
And so contemporary artists find ways to battle for truth on their own terms. I think of young women like Emma Cline, who push back against having their photos on the dust jackets of their books, or David Hammons, who declines to participate in the accepted machinations of the art world, or Bob Dylan, who took nearly two weeks to even publicly acknowledge that he won the Nobel Prize in literature last year. But maybe the best display of resistance against the role of artist-as-performer was the quietly myth-demolishing article by this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote for The Guardian about the four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the “crash,” a desperate attempt to “reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.” The result was “The Remains of the Day,” a monumental yesteryear portrait of renunciation, and a life passed by, tragically unlived. Now, of course, all is reversed: It’s renouncing the world that requires nerve and imagination, and the roar of silence that dares us to listen.
Anna-Sofia Lesiv, Columnist
When Lena imagines herself in her mind, her actual appearance is not what she pictures. Lena is chubby. Glasses cover her eyes, acne covers her skin. She’s coming of age in a poor and violent suburb of Naples, being hurled towards adulthood, while grasping – as if for a branch in a hurricane – for childhood and a world where time stays still. Adulthood is frightening. It disables like her mother’s limp. It suffocates with the claustrophobia of domesticity and aches with the disappointment of abandoned dreams. Growing up seems, for Lena, what it is for most girls, a winding on of constraints and obligations, an application of social pressure and a submission to its conformity.
Adolescence is the jarring in-between. It’s the time before the substance of our identities hardens into the adults we fear becoming. A present yet fleeting moment of tumult, it offers a final window of hope to shape our lives, our minds, before they ossify into their mature and unchangeable forms.
“My Brilliant Friend” is a journey through the secret thoughts, memories and confessions swirling in Lena’s mind. Paced by the ever-increasing speed of change, the novel exudes uncertainty. At nearly every point in the narrative, Lena is struggling to define her self-worth – and herself. Though she is sought after by boys and praised by teachers, she questions her beauty, her intelligence and her merits. Though she is deeply introspective and thoughtful, she fears being wrong or seeming stupid. Lena’s challenge is Sisyphean, to overcome within herself that which always tells her she is behind. Author Elena Ferrante pours out these insecurities with prose you could drink, but digesting the plight of the young protagonist would be exhausting if it weren’t so acutely familiar.
As a freshman last year, I remember sitting in class with the previous night’s reading whirling in my mind. I had argued over the ideas with my friends last night, ruminated over their meaning. Yet when prompted for questions or comments, my hand stayed resolutely lowered, my mouth steadfastly closed. My piece, which teetered at the tip of my tongue, was knocked off balance by the frenzy of thoughts chasing each other in circles, each one critical of the last. While a hurricane ravaged through my mind, the professor calmly registered the silence and moved on.
Later on, I approached a friend of mine to ask about this phenomenon that followed me from class to class. It felt as if something inside of me were ordering me to stay silent, lest I be wrong, lest my question contain the slightest redundancy. No matter how much I dedicate myself to the material, self-doubt always seemed to creep in. To my surprise, my friend told me that she was experiencing the exact same thing. We resolved that introspecting, overanalyzing, somehow always made us weaker. It set one part of ourselves against another, and left us in a haze, not knowing which “self” to trust.
Like young Lena, we lacked – and perhaps feared – the conviction required to assert our opinions, and thus ourselves. Fearing that we become, inadvertently, what we did not wish to be. Fearing that a false statement might crystallize into a false impression. In general, we just feared.
The world offers a lot for a girl to fear. The threat of violence, abuse, loss of agency or denial of self-fulfillment, all are ominous concerns thumping in the background of “My Brilliant Friend,” and while it’s easy to learn to fear, girls, in particular are much more hard pressed to find models of overcoming it without submitting to artificially mimicking the trope of male supremacy.
On this point, Ferrante offers a brilliant case study. Lila, Lena’s self-assured and powerful friend, doesn’t fear wielding a knife on those who cross her. She dominates with her intellect, and eviscerates all doubt directed at her through forceful outbursts of aggression and merciless cruelty. However, Lila’s extreme displays of courage seem to hint that beneath them lay profound unrest. Midway into her adolescence, she begins experiencing a feeling she calls “dissolving boundaries,” when all around her, people, objects lose their shape and seem but a mass of particles, spilling out of their original forms. The storm of adolescence ravages, leaving nothing behind as it was. Lila’s ambition devolves into doubt, and her courage eventually gives in to fear. She commits herself to provincial life and dismisses the prospect of moving away from her impoverished, lethargic town.
Suppressing self-doubt does not get rid of it, and the contrast between the two friends finally exposes itself in the way the girls respond to self-critique. Whereas Lena grew up and adapted under the constant pressure of crushing self-doubt, for Lila, the shock of finally admitting to such uncertainty, was irreparably destructive.
After reading the first novel in Ferrante’s series, I met with my friend from freshman year once again. She had been reading an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published a few days prior that seemed to translate exactly what we felt into a polished jargon, as if our recurring dispositions were legitimate academic methodology. The entry is titled “Epistemic Self-Doubt,” and dubs the state of the split, doubting self, as one of “epistemic akrasia.”
The entry sheds light on what it means to be a constantly self-critiquing and doubting being. It notes that while splitting oneself into two factions is not the most straightforward means of existence, it’s almost not a state of perpetual moral tempest, and by all means, is extremely possible to simply live with. Lena’s not a role model – no one in Ferrante’s books is. She never solves the problem of self-doubt, but she does move forward despite it. Her ability to keep going despite her flaws is her most commendable trait, one that fellow epistemic akrasiacs are wont to take note of.
Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.
I have read many books throughout the years, from the heavy classics to the lighter page-turners, and I know exactly what I like to read. For me a good book should be both interesting, well written, light and heavy at the same time. Literature should be something enriching for both the soul, the heart and the brain. I love a well-written page-turner. The Italian writer Elena Ferrante writes those books.
I have read many foreign writers, both for some reason not a lot of Italian writers, but since reading Elena Ferrante I have become increasingly interested in the country and it’s culture. Elena Ferrante is an interesting figure, she (if she is a she) has decided to stay anonymous, she has said that her person and her books should be and stay to separate things and that you don’t need to know a writer for you to enjoy a book. Unfortunately, her wish to stay unknown is also the press wish to unravel that secret. Ferrante has since stated that she would not produce any more books if “they” (the publishing firm) decide to reveal her identity.
But to get back to her books, the most famous ones are the Neapolitan Novels. The four book series that tells the becoming of age story of two girls Elena and Lila growing up in Naples, from the 50’s to today. It’s a story of girls becoming women, but also about a city that is, in my sense, the principal character of the book. Naples is violent, hard, poor but also extremely fascinating. The books are extremely well written, there is everything from love to politics. After reading the books, you feel like you have lived their lives, you travel through Italy’s story and you grow up with them. These books are truly the most realistic and gripping books, I have read in a long time. And have you already read the four books, I can also recommend Ferrante’s other books. The themes of the female struggle, Naples, family are recurrent.
When I first came across My Brilliant Friend, oblivious to Ferrante Fever, in a local bookshop, the title simply intrigued me. Who was this brilliant friend? It was a terrific title.
After abandoning a few dud novels, I was excited to pick up Elena Ferrante’s book because I could tell from the first page that she was an author in control of her craft. Unfortunately, due to my short attention span as a millennial, I put the novel aside after reading the first few chapters. I had a hard time keeping up with the flurry of characters introduced in the beginning. It didn’t help that some characters have multiple names (Lila is also called Raffaela and Lina), and some of the names rhymed: Gino, Nino, Rino.
I missed the old me, pre-social media, when I was able to plow through a thick classic from Dickens or a Brontë sister without getting distracted. I was disappointed in myself for not giving a proper chance to a writer who wrote so well, so I forced myself to pick up the book again months later. Good thing I did. Once I got familiar with the characters, I couldn’t put this book down.
In fact, I found myself reading every spare second that I got. I was back to the old bookworm me again, my nose in a book at all times, and it felt great. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the 4-book Neapolitan Novels, about the lifelong friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, the protagonist. For a few weeks in the spring, this series consumed my life. I was emotionally invested. More than I few times I wanted to throw a book against a wall because I was angry at a character, some event that occurred, or due to the masochistic life decisions of the protagonist.
Elena Ferrante is a pen name and very few people know who she is, although some nosy peeps have desperately tried to find out. Ferrante is an Italian writer from Naples, most likely in her 70s. I don’t need to know more. If she wants to stay anonymous to feel comfortable writing with sincerity and truth, we need to respect it, do the literary world a favour, and let her.
Her descriptions of Naples are so vivid I’m there, postwar, with her, and her characters are so real that I had to tweet about my reaction to one character and was gratified to know I wasn’t the only one who hated this dude with a passion. Yes, you will hate him too.
Ferrante Fever is a thing—there’s even a documentary about it now. People around the world are obsessed. HBO is making a mini-series. As I was reading, I was trying to figure it how Ferrante did it—how did she make the minutiae feel so explosive? Talent like this does not come very often.
As for the controversy over the book covers, people need to get over it. Some are offended because they feel the books deserve more than women’s fiction covers. I think they’re fine. The book is written by a woman, the story is about two complex women, and the publishing house wants to target female readers. Why should “masculine” or “gender neutral” covers equal respectable literary fiction? How many novels by male authors are read by women even when the covers are “masculine”? I think people need to rethink the fact that books with girly covers are automatically not deserving of literary praise. Ferrante’s book covers are helping in this regard—training people to look beyond the covers. If I’d passed on certain books because I didn’t like the covers, I would have missed out on a lot of good reads.
I still haven’t said anything about the plot of this book, aside from the fact it is about two friends. I’ll just say that by the end of the series, it’s still not clear who is the brilliant friend.
The first book covers their lives from childhood to adolescence. Read the books, get obsessed, and get back to me on what you think.
“Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey” by Elena Ferrante (Penguin, $17). “Frantumaglia” is a Neapolitan word meaning a jumble of fragments — and this collection, by the writer of the beloved Neapolitan Quartet series, is appropriately a mixture of letters, essays and interviews. Though the author, who writes under a pseudonym, sheds little light on her own life story, a New York Times reviewer noted that the book “offers something else: a chance to consider her strange, spectral presence in the world of letters.”
The American novelist on the books that changed his life, made him cry and the ones he wishes he’d written
The book I wish I’d written
I aborted a third novel, and it’s interesting (for about five seconds) to imagine what I would have produced had I soldiered on through to the end of it. I might have liked to do groundbreaking work such as Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but why would I want Murakami and Ferrante not to have written those books themselves?
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (Translator) (Europa Editions): A national bestseller for almost an entire year, The Days of Abandonment shocked and captivated its Italian public when first published. It is the gripping story of a woman’s descent into devastating emptiness after being abandoned by her husband with two young children to care for. When she finds herself literally trapped within the four walls of their high-rise apartment, she is forced to confront her ghosts, the potential loss of her own identity, and the possibility that life may never return to normal.
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.