If you enjoy contemporary fiction, then you’ve no doubt heard of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series.
Four novels, set in Naples from 1950s to present day, trace the friendship and lives of two women, Elena and Lila. The novels — My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child — have received rave reviews in the United States and abroad. They’ve also set off a craze for Ferrante and Naples. The series inspired two articles in the New York Times’ Travel Section gushingly titled “Elena Ferrante’s Naples, Then and Now” and “What to Do in Elena Ferrante’s Naples.” There’s a TV adaptation in the works.
They are the most fantastic stories I’ve read in a long time.
The novels are beautiful accounts of human beings in all our brilliance and decrepitude. They are sublime and gut-wrenching. I sped through all four in quick succession; I couldn’t get enough of Elena and Lila’s story. The books deserve all their acclaim.
But certainly what also spurs interest in these books is the author’s much-discussed anonymity. She has given birth to two fully realized humans in Elena and Lila. Both women are depicted sans touch-ups or polishing; their private moments and darkest hours are revealed to the reader. The author herself, however, is hidden from view. Elena Ferrante writes under a pseudonym, and not even the English translator of her novels knows her real identity.
In early 2015 Ferrante provided a rare interview to the Paris Review. In it, she gave reasons for her extraordinary anonymity. (Even the circumstances of that interview were tightly controlled by Ferrante; the interviewers were her publishers, and she directed the compilation of the publishers’ notes into the printed interview.)
According to the interview, when she began publishing novels in 1990, Ferrante remained anonymous because she “was frightened at the thought of having to come out of my shell.” But that initial decision has been reinforced over time by Ferrante’s realization that the truest self she can present to her readers is the one that exists in her words:
It has become natural to think of the author as a particular individual who exists, inevitably, outside the text—so that if we want to know more about what we’re reading we should address that individual, or find out everything about his more or less banal life. Remove that individual from the public eye and, as O’Rourke says, we discover that the text contains more than we imagine. It has taken possession of the person who writes. If we want to find that person, she’s right there, revealing a self that even she may not truly know. When one offers oneself to the public purely and simply through an act of writing—which is all that really counts—this anonymity turns into part of the story or the verse, part of the fiction.
In Ferrante’s view, what we can glean about her from her novels is “all that really counts.”
It’s an interesting theory. I wonder whether Ferrante will remain faithful to this view, or at some point find reasons to unveil herself. Regardless, I hope she continues publishing, and I look forward to delving into her earlier novels.
If you haven’t yet read the Neapolitan series, I’m envious of you. How much I’d love to read them again for the first time! If you have read them, what did you think?