Scant Clues to a Secret Identity
Elena Ferrante, Author of Naples Novels, Stays Mysterious
ROME — The Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s gripping novels about the rich and complex lives of women — as mothers, daughters, wives, writers — have won her a devoted cult following. After several years of growing critical favor, her readership reached new levels this fall with the release of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the third volume in her series of Naples novels, which recount the lifelong friendship of two women.
In her most extensive interview in years, Ms. Ferrante, who publishes under a pseudonym and has never revealed her identity, addressed her choice of anonymity — or “absence,” as she called it. In an interview conducted by email and through her publisher, she disputed the oft-circulated notion that she might be a man. “My identity, my sex, are found in my writing,” Ms. Ferrante wrote in Italian in response to written questions conveyed by her longtime Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who said the writer had declined to grant an in-person interview.
Ms. Ferrante also discussed her aims and challenges as a writer, the influence of the classical world and of motherhood on her work, and her views on contemporary Italy — “an extraordinary country that has been made completely ordinary by the permanent confusion between legality and illegality, between the common good and private interest” — and on her native Naples, “the best and worst of Italy and the world.”
The few things known about the author who signs her work Elena Ferrante come from what she has revealed in written interviews. She says she was born in Naples, studied classics, admires the novelist Elsa Morante and has a day job, which she has said “is not writing.” “I discovered as a girl that I liked telling stories,” she said in her interview with The New York Times, adding that she started writing at age 13 and made it a habit in her 20s.
Traditional in structure and sometimes veering into potboiler territory, the Naples novels follow the friendship of two women, Elena and Lila, from their impoverished childhoods in postwar Naples well into the women’s 60s. Elena escapes the city, attends college and becomes a writer, while Lila, whom Elena has always envied for her access to true feelings, stays behind and works at menial jobs, though she never loses her intellectual brilliance.
Published in Italian by Edizioni E/O and in English by its sister house, Europa Editions, the series begins with “My Brilliant Friend” (2010, English translation 2012) and continues with “The Story of a New Name” (2012, English translation 2013), and the third volume, which has just been released. The fourth and final volume in the almost 1,700-page series appeared in Italian in November and is to be released in English next November, translated, like all her novels, by Ann Goldstein.
“Her terrifying truthfulness, the pleasing stringency of her storytelling” contribute to her popularity, said James Wood, a literary critic for The New Yorker, whose glowing review of “My Brilliant Friend” in January 2013 helped put Ms. Ferrante on the international literary map. He added: “We’re in a period of profound misogynist backlash, and Ferrante’s work, though never fitting easily into available ideological modes, certainly offers a powerful feminist vision.”
In her interview, Ms. Ferrante revealed the mix of fragility and ferocity that is a hallmark of her work. She said that it was only after overcoming the challenge of writing “The Lost Daughter” (2006), which she called her “most daring, most risk-taking” novel, that she could tackle the Naples series, in which Elena and Lila are the characters closest to her heart.
“All my books derive their truth from my experience,” she wrote, but Elena and Lila, “are the ones that best capture me.” Not in their personalities and in the plot, but “in the movement that characterizes their relationship, in the self-discipline of the one that is continuously and brusquely shattered when it runs up against the disorderly inspiration of the other.”
Ms. Ferrante said she began the series six years ago. “I thought I could manage in 100, 150 pages,” she said, but the writing “unearthed memories of people and places from my childhood — stories, experiences, fantasies — so much so that the story went on for many years.” The book was conceived as a whole and divided into four parts after she realized the material wouldn’t fit in one book, she said.
Her books have done well in Italy — “My Brilliant Friend” has sold a formidable 100,000 copies there, and the second and third volumes have each sold 60,000, Edizioni E/O said — and has generally received favorable reviews, but her growing reputation abroad has also raised eyebrows in Italy’s hothouse literary culture.
This fall, the Turin daily La Stampa compared the Naples novels to an Italian soap opera. “I don’t think the Italian literary world has taken Ferrante very seriously,” said Goffredo Fofi, the editor of Lo Straniero, an Italian monthly. He said critics had been most attentive to “My Brilliant Friend” and her first novel, “Troubling Love” (1991), both set in chaotic Naples, but that her other novels, which were more interior, were less well received. (The state broadcaster RAI is developing the Naples books for a television series.)
In all her books, the complexities and anxieties of being a mother are central themes. “Sometimes I think I haven’t written about anything else,” she said, calling motherhood “both thrilling and threatening.”
“It’s an experience close to awe, that ancient feeling that mortals had when they found themselves facing a god, the same feeling that Mary must have felt, immersed in her reading, when the angel appeared,” she said.
As to how E/O had come to publish Ms. Ferrante’s work, Ms. Ozzola, who founded the publishing house with her husband, Sandro Ferri, said only that “Troubling Love” had reached her “via a friend.” It tells the story of woman who goes back to Naples to figure out what happened to her mother before she drowned. “I was immediately struck by it, by the violence and carnality of the book,” Ms. Ozzola said. “The way she handled the sexuality of the mother really struck me.”
The book gained more traction after it was made into a 1995 film by Mario Martone. But the Italian press also seized on Ms. Ferrante’s anonymity, which she said disturbed her so much that she retreated. “I didn’t publish anything for 10 years, at which point, after much anxiety, I decided to release ‘The Days of Abandonment,’ ” she said of her 2002 novel about a woman whose husband leaves her. It appeared in English in 2005.
Ms. Ferrante has always said she wants readers to focus on her work, not on her. “I didn’t choose anonymity. The books are signed,” she wrote. “Instead, I chose absence. More than 20 years ago, I felt the burden of exposing myself in public, I wanted to detach myself from the finished story; I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage.”
Ms. Ozzola refuted the idea that in image-obsessed Italy, Ms. Ferrante’s anonymity was a clever public relations move. “Not to have an author means she doesn’t go on TV, doesn’t go to festivals, doesn’t collect prizes, so you can’t enter her in them,” Ms. Ozzola said. “What kind of marketing strategy is that?”
Ms. Ferrante was asked what she hoped readers would take away from her work. Her answer revealed the sense of what is at stake in her books: “Even if we’re continually tempted to lower our guard — for love or weariness, for sympathy or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we’ve achieved.”