Book worm by John Boland
Everyone loves a good mystery story and there was no bigger literary mystery this year than the identity of Elena Ferrante. Was she a woman? Was she a man? Did she exist at all? Well, yes, because her novels, six of which are now available in English translation, have been greeted with acclaim, first in her native Italy and now globally, even though no one knows who she is or what she looks like, which has even led some Italian critics to speculate that her books might actually be the work of male novelist Domenico Starnone. Ferrante seems unlikely to clear things up, having declared 20 years ago that books, “once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t”. And she has stayed true to this belief, refusing any interviews that would involve her coming face-to-face with her interviewer and divulging nothing of her life. Indeed, all that’s tentatively known about her is that she was probably born in or near Naples in the 1940s and may once have been married. Her abiding subject is the fraught position of women in post-war Italian society, and her most recent exploration of it is in a quartet of novels about two women, Elena and Lila, who grew up together in Naples. I’ve just started reading the first of these, My Brilliant Friend, and can already sense the raw intensity of Ferrante’s vision and the frankness of her personal and social insights. The latest of these novels to be translated is Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and it’s been named as book of the year by quite a few writers and critics, as has a poetry collection called Accepting the Disaster by 45-year-old New Yorker Joshua Mehigan. I mention this for those readers who are mindful to ask why poetry doesn’t rhyme anymore.