The Telegraph

How Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante won us over

In other words, something appears to have happened by stealth: British reading habits have changed without anyone noticing. We read translations without thinking of them as translations. We have become more European.

Have Knausgaard and Ferrante finally conquered our fear of European fiction?

Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante have stormed the bestseller lists with their raw, lifelike novels. Gaby Wood asks whether we’re finally over our fear of European fiction

If anthropologists were to visit from Mars and examine the current reading habits of the British people, they would notice sooner or later that we were suffering from a double addiction. The hunger for the latest instalment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part sequence of autobiographical novels, My Struggle, is matched only by the thirst for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, of which there are four. The fact that Ferrante is a pseudonym and no one knows who she is has done nothing to reduce her appeal. Knausgaard, meanwhile, is her exact opposite: his entire project is to lay himself bare – and his lack of mystery has not put anyone off either.

Genuine literary phenomena take hold in a few simple stages. The first is obvious: word of mouth. You hear more and more people talking about the same book. The next stage is a bit of backlash: people assert their lack of interest in the book everyone’s talking about, say they couldn’t get on with it, or insist it’s not that good. And then, in a few special cases, a tidal wave rises. Nobody asks you whether you’ve read the book anymore; that would be too exposing. Instead, they ask what you think of it. You’re either for or against, and small-talk has gone out the window.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle
Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle CREDIT: SAM BARKER

Together, Knausgaard and Ferrante have created a unique situation. We’re usually told that Britons don’t like translated fiction – and, statistically, that does appear to be true. Only three per cent of books published in this country each year were originally written in another language, compared with 16 per cent of books published in France, 20 per cent of books published in Italy and more than 30 per cent of books published in Poland. Yet Knausgaard and Ferrante are being devoured here in large doses – 350,000 copies in the case of Ferrante, 100,000 in the case of Knausgaard.

Volume five of My Struggle, the gigantic Some Rain Must Fall, will be published next month in English; the last of Ferrante’s series, The Story of the Lost Child, came out in September and was received with palpitations by the cognoscenti. The voluminous ongoing sales of My Brilliant Friend, the first instalment, suggest the Neapolitan Novels are still gaining momentum, as everyone else catches up. Frantumaglia, Ferrante’s essays due later this year, are keenly anticipated.

Frantumaglia, Ferrante's essays, are due later in the year
Frantumaglia, Ferrante’s essays, are due later in the year

In other words, something appears to have happened by stealth: British reading habits have changed without anyone noticing. We read translations without thinking of them as translations. We have become more European.

“The thing I find heartening is that translated fiction isn’t being thought of as elitist, separate, academic,” says Liz Foley, publishing director of Knausgaard’s UK house, Harvill Secker. “These are just fantastic books. People are evangelical about them.” About half of Harvill’s list is fiction in translation – it publishes such international names as Haruki Murakami and the late Umberto Eco – and it has seen a marked shift. There was a time when foreign fiction was seen as worthy – “good for you”, in Foley’s phrase – but that loses all meaning when so many former boundaries have broken down. “It’s such a connected world,” Foley says. “We send out a tweet about Murakami and we have tweets in hundreds of different languages coming back.”

Boyd Tonkin, who for many years oversaw the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and is now chair of the judges for the revamped Man Booker International Prize, believes publishers can be too wary of British readers’ tastes. “Television series such as The Bridge or Borgen or Deutschland ’83 have shown that people have no problem coping with the visible translation in subtitles, whereas in other countries they would be dubbed. The fear is in publishers’ own minds.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, as imagined by the superb Wesley Merritt

What’s more, he says, the three per cent figure is misleading. So many more books are published now that in actual numbers three per cent is two or three times what it was 25 years ago. “There have always been specialists. But there are more publishers who specialise in translated fiction now, and they’re more clued up.” He mentions Pushkin Press, & Other Stories, and translation-heavy lists within big publishing houses, such as Harvill or MacLehose. “They know which grants to apply for – it costs less now to become a boutique publisher.”

Daniela Petracco, Ferrante’s publisher at Europa Editions, points out that it’s not just about numbers. The kinds of books that get translated and the kinds of translation that are commissioned are different now. It’s no longer a niche or scholarly interest. “Translation had an academic quality,” she says. “Now more commercial books are translated and they’re more accessibly done.”

You could say that door was opened by Christopher MacLehose, when he brought Stieg Larsson to the English-speaking world. But Knausgaard and Ferrante have had a knock-on effect, too. “There’s definitely an opening there wasn’t a few years ago,” says Petracco. “There’s been a change in British readers’ habits.”

What is it about these books that makes them so compelling? To some extent, they shouldn’t really be spoken of in the same breath. Knausgaard, whose wave hit these shores first, describes his life – from suffering at the hands of his furious father to his father’s death, fatherhood of his own, difficulties with writing, the alcoholism and depression of his relatives, and so on – in scorchingly honest detail. He kept people’s real names, pointed fingers (his father’s relatives had threatened legal action long before we could read the books in English) and dwelt on banality. My Struggle is, in theory, just like life, without any of the constrictions of novelistic structure or plot. They can be hypnotic, and also mesmerisingly self-involved. That is why other novelists, such as Zadie Smith and Rachel Cusk, have praised him so highly. Knausgaard has managed to write novels that circumvent novel-hood entirely; Cusk has called them “the most significant literary enterprise of our times”.

The case of Ferrante is much stranger, because it’s less clear what she is doing. The Neapolitan Novels are not composed of perfect sentences – in fact, they can tilt towards the trashy – but there is a magical vividness to the memories evoked, something daring about the twinned fear and admiration of violence, and a sensory perception of mental states that is much stranger than it seems at first. More broadly, they take in the history of Italy in the 20th century, the struggle of women against male regimes, and the gritty crucible of a specific southern Italian working-class environment. They are at once great social novels and strangely intimate.

Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels

But both sets of books aim to present entire and interlocking lives, rather than composed stories or scenes. Both trade in nakedness, sometimes nastiness. Both aim to dismantle the distance between truth and fiction, and in both cases, their authenticity derives less from a historical tradition of realism than a certain urgency in the writing. The fact that they occasionally fall into cliché stems from this, and only contributes to their lifelike quality – the telling has not been cleaned up, but comes to us quickly and fresh, like a very long letter written in haste.

Of the many genres Ferrante’s saga partly recalls, one is soap opera. Knausgaard, meanwhile, has lifted the veil of artifice from the kind of male narcissism many novelists have peddled more pompously for years. Though few readers will admit that they can be split along male-female lines, these gender patterns lend each series the quality of an immersive guilty pleasure. Crucially, however, that guilt is absolved by the fact that they are foreign – and therefore, just possibly, highbrow.

Is something gained rather than lost in translation? That may explain why the critical success of these two authors has ridden on their global lives. Locally, Knausgaard was merely provocative; once international, he became a sensation. Ferrante was quietly respected in Italy, but a craze when exported.

Foley explains that Knausgaard was “huge in Scandinavia when we took him on… We launched him as a phenomenon – but sometimes that doesn’t necessarily travel.” Although he was a bestseller in Norway, it’s easy to forget that Norway’s population is half that of London’s. What made Harvill Secker certain was the in-house response to the translated sample – their staff were enthralled. “We didn’t know it would be such a big seller, but we knew it was a piece of literature we wanted to publish,” Foley says.

Ferrante, by contrast, was not that popular in Italy to begin with. As Daniela Petracco explains, she has had a following since the early Nineties, but her previous three novels never sold in huge numbers. “She really became a bestseller once the noise they were making in the UK and the US reached Italy,” Petracco says. More specifically, Petracco believes there is a reason she appeals in Britain. “In a way, they’re similar to English 19th-century novels – works by Eliot or Dickens. The large cast of characters, the coincidences, the way people’s lives intertwine – that, in particular, appeals to British readers.”

All this encourages us to consider what we really want, as opposed to what we think we want. Both Tonkin and Petracco hope to see a time when people don’t think twice about whether a book was originally written in English or not.

A sample of the Pocket Penguins
A sample of the Pocket Penguins

That doesn’t seem impossible now. In fact, it may already be here. Britain might be seen as a nation of insular readers, but the foundations of our literary culture are much less anglophone than we might think, and suggest our appetite for foreign fiction could, if anything, do with more sustenance. Last week, the publication of a new series of Penguin Classics was announced: Pocket Penguins. There are 20 of them – the beginnings of a canon – by writers such as Tolstoy, Kafka, Rilke, Zola and Woolf. Of the 20, only eight were originally written in English. And within those eight, one was by a Dane, Karen Blixen, and another was by Joseph Conrad, a Pole.