Elena Ferrante: the global literary sensation nobody knows
She shuns publicity and her identity is a mystery. Yet, as the last in her acclaimed series of novels about two friends in Naples is published, Elena Ferrante’s reputation is soaring, with Zadie Smith, James Wood and Jhumpa Lahiri among her fans. Meghan O’Rourke on a literary mystery
Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist who was born in or near Naples. She seems once to have been married; she may have lived in Greece; she appears to be a mother. Or so we think. In our self-promoting, Twitter-saturated age, Ferrante is an outlier, an author who wishes to remain totally private. She refuses face-to-face interviews, has only given a handful of written ones (a few of her letters have been published), and makes no personal appearances; no photographs of her have been published. In 1991, shortly before the publication of her style-defining first book, Troubling Love, Ferrante sent a letter to her editor, explaining that she would not be promoting it: “I believe 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.” Anonymity, she thought, would preserve “a space of absolute creative freedom”, a freedom all the more necessary because her books stick “a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected”.
That absolute creative freedom has resulted in a series of brilliant novels. (Six are now available in English, all exquisitely translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker.) Ferrante’s project is bold: her books chronicle the inner conflicts of intelligent women (professors, novelists) who, having made their way to Florence or Rome and to good jobs, find themselves confronting memories of the crude violence and misogyny of their youth. Shaken by a surprising event, they lose their grip on reality, lapse into a Neapolitan dialect full of obscenities, and are drawn into hallucinatory quests to heal old emotional injuries. The books’ taglines might be “No self can be left behind”: in Ferrante’s world, no character can escape her past.
Partly because her work describes domestic experiences – such as vivid sexual jealousy and other forms of shame – that are underexplored in fiction, Ferrante’s reputation is soaring, especially among women (Zadie Smith, Mona Simpson and Jhumpa Lahiri are fans). Her writing has a powerful intimacy – as if her characters, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, are the lenses through which we read our own minds. The novelist Claire Messud emailed, “When you write to me and say you love her work, I have a moment where I think, ‘But … Elena is my friend! My private relationship with her, so intense and so true, is one that nobody else can fully know!’ It’s strange – and rare – to feel proprietary of a book, or a writer, in that way.” Ferrante’s most recent project, known as the Neapolitan series – four novels that make up a single book – is a kind of quasi-feminist bildungsroman that also happens to be a history of Italy in the late 20th century. Nothing quite like it has ever been published. With the UK and US publication last month of the series’ third volume, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and the publication this week in Italy of the series’ much-heralded conclusion, The Story of the Lost Child, Ferrante is becoming a bona fide literary sensation – the famous writer nobody knows.
The irony is that if Ferrante thought anonymity would help people focus only on her books, the opposite seems to be true. Her identity may now be literature’s most beguiling mystery – the source of fierce speculation and dinner party gossip. (“I want to know how Ferrante’s house is decorated. What does she wear when she writes?” one American critic wistfully inquired. “Does she drink? Does she smoke?”) In Italy, there is a rumour that her work might actually be the product of the (male) avant-garde novelist Domenico Starnone. She even has her own hashtag:#FerranteFever.
It’s difficult to separate the phenomenon of Ferrante’s self-presentation from the work itself, especially because she appears to play, self-consciously, teasingly, with the boundaries between the “real” and the “invented”. Not unlike Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, her novels explore the murky territory between fiction and non-fiction. Similarities between her characters and what we know of her life lead critics to speak of Ferrante’s work as if it were mainly autobiographical; one noted that the narrator of her vaunted Neapolitan series – a novelist named Elena Greco who grew up in Naples – is presumably the author’s avatar. The similarities certainly abound: in The Days of Abandonment, Olga is a married 38-year-old who relinquished her dreams of being a writer to be a mother and wife (might this be why Ferrante published her first book relatively late?). In The Lost Daughter, Leda is a Neapolitan-born professor who is divorced from her husband.
But there is a key difference between Ferrante and Knausgaard: Ferrante’s narrators are, by design, fictional creations, and she hides the actual details of her life behind the veil of anonymity. So we have to ask whether our assumptions about the personal nature of these novels are true – or if they get in the way of recognising the high sheen of their art.
Clearly, the work elicits strong reactions, either of identification or revulsion. (On the US Amazon site, one reviewer called The Days of Abandonment a “stomach-churning whirlwind of destructiveness and hate”.) Ferrante’s novels are tactile and sensual, visceral and dizzying; they quickly establish a slightly deranged atmosphere through the accrual of highly particular physical details. Her style is immersive, its intensity a cumulative effect of her bracing run-on sentences, which whip forward with muscular rigour, producing the effect of a world shaped entirely by the narrator’s perceptions. There is little digression, especially in her first three novels, which in some ways represent the purest distillation of her project.
Ferrante’s subject – it is almost an obsession – is the way women are shaped, distorted and sometimes destroyed by their social milieu (and by the men around them). Voicing what can still seem unvoiceable, she delves into the darker tensions between daughters and mothers, the tug-and-pull of being a wife or a mother and wanting to retain some sense of independent self. “[My mother] did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. I found her body repulsive,” Elena Greco says in My Brilliant Friend.
Here is Leda, who is a successful professor, in her late 40s; she is divorced, with two children and an occasional lover, at the start of The Lost Daughter:
When my daughters moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then had I definitively brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them. The house was neat, as if no one lived there, I no longer had the constant bother of shopping and doing the laundry.
But there are consequences to such feelings in Ferrante’s world. When Leda decides to spend a summer vacation on her own at the beach, her happiness is corrupted by embarrassment and dark memories. She finds herself studying the interactions of a “serene” young Neapolitan mother, Nina, and her daughter at the beach. This stirs up memories of her own mother, who threatened to abandon her and her siblings. Ferrante’s narrators are always unreliable: ironically, it was Leda herself who abandoned her children, as she reveals, circling towards the subject as if it were “an inexplicable lesion”. If Ferrante’s narrators present themselves as rational and forthright, they reveal themselves (as all of us finally do) to be full of hidden currents, submerged angers and contradictions.
There is something particularly brilliant about Ferrante’s combination of control and abandon in her novels. As the novelist Katie Kitamura told me, “Her writing has the kind of urgency that is difficult to fake, and that’s what makes the books so propulsive. It’s not a question of plot or narrative tension, but rather intensity of purpose.” What leads so many critics to praise their raw and honest qualities (terms we apply more commonly to memoir than to novels, which are by design not honest) is the way that the narrator’s voice betrays a person who is at once carefully appraising and almost hysterically sensitive to the portents and symbols she finds around her.
Indeed, to read a Ferrante novel is to feel as if Kafka had written a novel in which Gregor Samsa didn’t turn into a bug, but became constantly aware of his own inner bug-like status – discovering metaphors for this deeper insect identity everywhere he looked. Like Kafka, Ferrante extravagantly externalises her characters’ inner states. The night Leda has arrived at the place she has rented for the summer, after watching the sun set on her terrace, reflecting on all that her daughters have taken from her, she returns to her room to find that the plate of fruit left for her is rotten; she tries to “cut off large black areas” but is disgusted by the smell. She finds a cicada in her bed:
I touched it with the hem of my bathrobe, it moved and became immediately quiet. Male, female. The stomach of the females doesn’t have elastic membranes, it doesn’t sing, it’s mute. I felt disgust.
This is a typical moment: shocked by shame, immersed in disgust, her narrators frequently experience phantasmagoric visions, like a dead mother floating near the ceiling, or a long-dead divorcee sitting on the chair near them. In Ferrante’s speculative fictional reality, our fears and dreams live in the furniture and rooms around us.
Take, for example, The Days of Abandonment. It opens as the narrator, Olga, reveals that her husband, Mario, has left her:
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always. … Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.
A hallmark of Ferrante’s writing is this juxtaposition between matter-of-factness and metaphor, between hyperrealism and hallucinatory distortion – Olga is not just sad, she is made of stone. Olga has thought of Mario as utterly reliable, so his sudden departure infects Olga with doubt: it results in a total crisis of self that manifests as physical disease and disorder. Everyday life seems beyond her, though she tries to be “desperately vigilant about household tasks”, and enumerates the importance of salting the pasta but not resalting it. “Now at 38, I was reduced to nothing,” Olga thinks. “I couldn’t even act as I thought I should. No work, no husband, numbed, blunted.” Although she has two young children, Ilaria and Gianni, in need of care, she begins to wonder if she is merely a “female life that has outlived its usefulness”.
Quickly, Olga begins to fall apart. Her son Gianni gets sick and in an ingenious set piece at the heart of the novel she becomes convinced that the locks on the doors will not give under her hand, leaving her trapped inside with her sick child. (Her telephone line is “stormy”, her mobile phone broken.) She finds the dog foaming at the mouth: “He gave off a sick heat that entered my blood.” As Olga is drawn further into this emotional and physical infection, she lapses into Neapolitan dialect, forgetting her Italian; it is not clear to her or to us what is real.
Ferrante isn’t just interested in female abandonment; she is interested in the way abandonment might disconcert a woman who has categorised herself as “strong” and looks down on vulnerability. As a girl reading books such as Anna Karenina or De Beauvoir’s A Woman Destroyed, Olga found herself loathing these “stupid” women who “broke like knick-knacks in the hands of their straying men. They seemed to me sentimental fools: I wanted to be different, I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife.” But when she learns there is another woman in Mario’s life – Carla, a girl he used to tutor – her sexual jealousy almost unravels her.
You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me? What words should I use for what you’re doing with that woman! Let’s talk about it! Do you lick her cunt? Do you stick it in her ass? Do you do all the things you never did with me?
Haunted by obsessive fantasies of her husband with Carla (“I imagined her ripe in a toilet, her skirt hiked up, he was on her, working her sweaty cheeks, and sinking his fingers in her, the floor slippery with sperm”), Olga tells herself, “No, stop.” Of course, she cannot.
What is most remarkable about The Days of Abandonment is its lucid portrait of a woman slowly losing touch with any coherent sense of self, while remaining entirely recognisable to us. In the midst of their hysterical thinking, her narrators arrive at deeper truths about the violence in life, about the rancour and messiness of domesticity, the proximity of sexual jealousy and the duplicity of female identity, civilised into responsible motherhood or daughterhood, but still wild at heart. The socialised self, in Ferrante’s world, is a veneer stretched over traumas or messy desires that threaten to become feverish reality. This lends her work a mythic quality, reminiscent, at times, of Sylvia Plath’s image-drenched poems. Olga, full of vengeful rage, thinks of herself as “the queen of spades”, “the wasp that stings”, “the dark serpent”, “the invulnerable animal”. Irritated at her children, who are both needy and punitive, she also decides, “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping.”
Female ambivalence about the maternal or filial role is not exactly new territory for literature – nor is the idea that women’s wounds are written on the body, so to speak. So why have people treated Ferrante’s work as shockingly new? Partly it’s that she seems to write about women’s experience without trying to find anything redemptive in it, and in doing so she peels away superficial assumptions. To read Ferrante is to realise that often I unconsciously divide female characters (and perhaps even female writers) into two groups: those who wear their wounds on their sleeves and those who do not. It’s relatively unusual to encounter a character who at once possesses great inner self-control and betrays a total lack of it, to her own bewilderment. But surely this dual control/lack of control is a quality that many of us experience at some point; it is a feature of emotional crisis.
The Neapolitan series, which is Ferrante’s most ambitious project to date, represents an evolution in her work. Three of the expected four novels have been published in English: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and, now, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Taken together, the novels span some 50 years, chronicling the life-long friendship between Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. With them, Ferrante has written both a capacious story of Elena’s coming of age – Elena, who has become a novelist, is the narrator – and a social novel explicitly dealing with Italian politics and history where the earlier work confined itself to internal psychic dramas. The Neapolitan novels are set in a chaotic, impoverished neighbourhood where the Camorra reigns, in the local form of the dominant Solara brothers, Marcello and Michel, and where, during a domestic dispute, one might see an iron and furniture flying out of a window, and where even mild-mannered fathers like Elena’s routinely beat their children and their wives. (In one passage, Elena overhears Lila being beaten by her father, then sees her come flying out the window, her arm broken.)
Despite their circumstances, the girls’ brightness seems destined to set them apart. They excel in school. Elena, the daughter of a porter at City Hall, is a good girl, dutiful and watchful where Lila, the daughter of a shoemaker, is always “narrowing” her eyes at that which displeases her, quick to throw stones back at the boys who torment them. Although she “gave off an odour of wildness”, her “quickness of mind”, Elena tells us, was remarkable – like “a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite”. The teachers begin to favour Lila when they realise that she has taught herself to read. But talent only goes so far. Elena – whose parents are slightly better off than Lila’s – is sent on to the middle school while Lila is pulled out to work in her father’s shoe repair shop. Their lives radically diverge: Lila becomes threateningly beautiful, while Elena remains simply pretty; Lila marries, and Elena is educated. Where Elena once found herself imitating Lila – “I decided I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight” – later Lila, now pregnant and unhappy, urges her to keep studying, telling her she must be “my brilliant friend”.
The two girls are almost inverses of each other, and for Elena this can be damaging; she begins early on to define herself by the absence in her of Lila’s qualities. The two girls fall in love with books. They decide they will write a novel together to become rich (and escape their impoverished neighbourhood). Instead, Lila writes one on her own – The Blue Fairy – in which the young Elena recognises, already, the blueprint of genius. In it is the voice that Elena will try to channel for the rest of her life, as she struggles to become a writer and to find her way in an upper-middle-class world, where she meets girls whose effortless confidence and style set them ineluctably apart from her and Lila. The Neapolitan novels are as much a story of class as they are of gender; in the second and third volumes, Ferrante offers a vividly precise portrait of the lingering (irrational) feelings of inadequacy that haunts those who start with nothing. As fiction, they are both deeply realist and surprisingly intimate. If the Neapolitan novels lack some of the focus of the early work – certain scenes are flat and overextended – they raise fascinating questions about female creativity: is it somehow social in nature? What does it mean to absorb another’s voice? Is this an act of silencing, of plagiarism, or a way of honouring that friend?
Although she is constrained by her terrible marriage, Lila is nothing if not a demon of creativity, whose wildness unleashes the more contained Elena. The subtle shifts in affection, the accrual of resentment, the physical and intellectual competition on view here are remarkable – never has female friendship been so vividly described. But the friendship is also highly metaphorical: the book opens with an epigraph about the devil and man from Goethe’s Faust. It is never in question who is the devil and who is the man searching for his level; but Lila is as much a genius demon or presiding spirit as she is a devil. This is a central concern of Ferrante’s: the way a female genius is demonised by culture, the way that, lacking an outlet, it may turn demonic. If these terms seem old-fashioned, well, so be it: Ferrante’s imagination is highly classical.
By the third and fourth volumes there have been many twists and turns in the girls’ friendship. In the fourth, Ferrante brings the novel full circle, back to its point of origin, with the two women raising their children side by side. Along the way, we are never sure who is whose brilliant friend. But in a crucial scene from volume two, The Story of a New Name, Lila enlists Elena to deform a beautiful photograph of her that will hang in the Solara brothers’ shoe shop. The photograph is a bargaining chip between her husband, Stefano, and the Solaras; its presence in the shop of men Lila hates is a kind of emblem of prostitution. So she defaces it:
They were magnificent hours of play, of invention, of freedom, such as we hadn’t experienced together perhaps since childhood. Lila drew me into her frenzy. … With extreme precision (she was demanding) we attached the black paper cutouts.…
For these women, their total effacement is at stake, and it is art and books that make it possible for them to become more, “to lift ourselves above ourselves”. Fascinatingly, this is a kind of scene that recurs elsewhere in Ferrante’s work – as does the sense Lila has of occasionally “dissolving at her margins”. To be a woman is to be permeated, at all times, by what surrounds you.
How does Ferrante’s insistence on total privacy change our reading of the novels? In a sense, she has effaced herself like Lila does so that she might lift a novelist out of, as it were, her self. Our relationship to her is like that which we have with a fictional character. We think we know her, but what we know are her sentences, the patterns of her mind, the path of her imagination. Ferrante feels vivid to us as a character because there is so much continuity of thought from novel to novel, and in her biographical absence we are permitted to focus on that literary continuity. Her translator Goldstein told me on the phone, “I have started feeling that she is very present as a person in some way in her books. And so I don’t feel any need to know the actual person, because this person’s mind is so vivid.” (Goldstein also told me, “I can’t believe that a woman didn’t write these books.”)
In a 2003 written interview, Ferrante said, “The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood” but instead for “the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word”. Whoever Ferrante is, in the novel she is free to invent, to fabricate, to play, to revisit old wounds, to be less than beautiful. This is what writing can do: create a space for the savage within, for the contradictory and the wild, and make it real. There may be no consolation except the art itself, but what a pleasure for those of us who get to read it. I would not want to forget what Ferrante herself so eloquently stated in one of her letters: the mystery of literature is in some ways its difference from the person who wrote it, the unfathomable effacement of self that leads to its creation.