We Tell a Story
and Try to Do Our Best

Answers to questions from Merve Emre 


Dear Elena (if I may),

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I am a great admirer of your writing. I am also grateful to you for writing the kinds of novels every literature professor dreams about teaching. For the past two years, I have assigned the Neapolitan novels in my class on contemporary fiction; it is rare to encounter novels that my students are desperate to keep reading and that also evoke so many urgent, illuminating conversations about genre, form, history, class politics, feminism—everything I want my students to enjoy thinking about in and out of the classroom.

On a more personal note, I have found myself returning to Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay many times since having my two children. No other novel I have read captures the vicissitudes of motherhood with such precision: the power and the vulnerability of caring for others, the intimacy and distance between mother and child. It was painful to realize when I became a mother that my mother had a separate life, a different self, before she became my mother; painful, too, to realize that my children might not appreciate this about me until too late. Your novels have helped me think with greater clarity about what it means to be a mother and what it meant to be a daughter. For that, I am grateful too.

Yours warmly,

Merve Emre


Merve Emre: The television series My Brilliant Friend opens with a shot of an iPhone 7—Lenu’s cell phone—ringing in the dark. It was a shocking opening for me. The novels have very little engagement with media forms and technologies that are not books: no one sees a movie, no one listens to music, no one reads articles on the computer. What does reading mean to you?

Elena Ferrante: You’re right, the two friends belong to the world of print books, as do I, who invented them. Elena realizes late that she doesn’t have a musical education, for example. Her escape from the neighborhood is centered completely on literacy: reading and studying are the only tools available for breaking the boundaries within which she happened to be born. But don’t forget that Lila, although she’s the first to see the great value of books, will be a pioneer in electronic media.


ME: What does reading mean to you?

EF: Reading is an extraordinary exercise. It doesn’t come naturally; it requires commitment—you have to transform pages crammed with signs into worlds full of life. But once reading has become an intellectual necessity, you can no longer do without it. I’m a very involved, disciplined, collaborative reader. I never abandon a book; even if I don’t like it, I read it to the last line. I always learn something. And I get enthusiastic—perhaps excessively so—when a book is a happy surprise. I recently read a novel that I thought was excellent. I read it in Italian, but I’d like to try to read it in English; I liked its tone very much. It’s called Outline, by Rachel Cusk.


ME: There are moments in previous interviews where you betray an impatience toward literary criticism and, in particular, literary theory for its relentless drive to interpretation and argument. Yet you are an extraordinarily attentive and sensitive reader and strong interpreter of your own fiction and the writing of others. What are your ethics of criticism? How do you believe professionalized readers should write about or teach literature?

EF: I don’t like the impressionistic type of critical work. I don’t like it when a text is taken as an occasion for talking about something else. I prefer works that concentrate on the page, that rigorously analyze the expressive strategies of the writer. A good critical work says to the reader: here’s where the author started from, here’s where he wanted to take me, here are the means he used, here are the goals he was aiming for, here are his debts to tradition, here’s why I liked or hated it.


ME: In Frantumaglia, you hint at your disappointment with the film adaptations of your novellas. What made you decide to let RAI adapt My Brilliant Friend? What kinds of audiences do you want the televisual adaptation of your work to reach?

EF: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I had no role in the production decisions. The means by which a film comes to be made are unknown to me. But I’ve always been curious to see what happens to my characters and my stories when they leave the page and venture into other media. I like it when they become audiobooks, plays, films. In fact, the more they enter into people’s lives through these other media, the more it seems to me that they are alive and in good health. Naturally I reserve the right to have an opinion on the works that originate in my texts. But I have to say that, even when I don’t like the result, I don’t suffer. Books, once they’re written, can sustain anything: writing makes them in a certain sense invulnerable.


ME: Why did you choose Saverio Costanzo as the director?

EF: I didn’t choose in this case, either, I’ve never had that power. But I have to say that choosing would have been a real problem. I’m a devoted moviegoer, I love films, but I have no expertise in that area. I get excited about films that are very different from one another, films made by people who have nothing in common. If I really did have to decide I would never manage it. I merely proposed a list of names, directors whose work I have a lot of respect for. Among them was Costanzo. When I found out he’d been chosen, I was very pleased.


ME: When I spoke with Saverio last week, he described a process of creating characters on screen that he called “conveying density”: a way of representing a character’s consciousness without explicitly psychologizing her actions, so that a viewer could sense a great and unexplored depth to her every statement, glance, gesture. He suggested that this was a practice of character creation to which you also ascribed; indeed, a practice you had taught him to create continuity between the representation of characters in the novel and on the screen. Can you explain how density works in the novels and how you imagine it working on the screen? Or if “density” is not the right word, can you discuss the difference for you between representing consciousness and psychologizing it in your fiction?

EF: I fear that in a short space I’m in danger of appearing confused. The definition of psychologies is an essential part of the narrator’s work. They focus the motivations both superficial and profound that guide the actions and reactions of the characters in the course of the story. But what decides the success of a character is often half a sentence, a noun, an adjective that jams the psychological machine like a wrench thrown into the works and produces an effect that is no longer that of a well regulated device, but of flesh and blood, of genuine life, and therefore incoherent and unpredictable. In films that effect is produced, I think, by a flash in the gaze, by an involuntary grimace, by an unexpected gesture. It’s the moment when the psychological framework breaks and the character acquires density.


ME: There is an irritating tendency in contemporary writing on motherhood to position motherhood as a psychological impediment to literary creativity—as if a child must steal not only time and energy from his mother but also language and thought. Your novels are ambivalent on motherhood as a creative experience and an experience conducive to literary creativity. (For a short time, Lila transforms motherhood into an act of grace; Lenu’s greatest professional success comes after she becomes a mother even though she complains about her obligations.) How do you think about representing the interplay between (creative) production and (physical) reproduction? What is the relationship between time spent taking care with one’s words and time spent taking care of one’s children?

EF: I very much like the way you’ve formulated the question. But I want to say that it’s not right to speak of motherhood in general. The troubles of the poor mother are different from those of the well-off mother, who can pay another woman to help her. But, whether the mother is rich or poor, if there is a real, powerful creative urge, the care of children, however much it absorbs and at times even consumes us, doesn’t win out over the care of words: one finds the time for both. Or at least that was my experience: I found the time when I was a terrified mother, without any support, and also when I was a well-off mother. So I will take the liberty of asserting that women should in no case give up the power of reproduction in the name of production. Although the difficulties are innumerable, the two can coexist. “Giving birth” is our specificity, belonging only to women, and no one should dare to take it away from us. Men use the metaphor of birth to speak of their works. For us giving birth is not a metaphor—neither when we give birth to children nor when we give birth to books, ideas, images of the world. We know how best to do both.


ME: Can you say a little bit more about being a terrified mother? What is the nature of this terror for you?

EF: I’m afraid of mothers who sacrifice their lives to their children. I’m afraid of mothers who surrender themselves completely and live for their children, who hide the difficulties of motherhood and pretend even to themselves to be perfect mothers. I prefer mothers who proceed consciously through trial and error, looking for an equilibrium but knowing that any equilibrium is precarious.


ME: Despite the emphasis on female friendship in the reception of the novels, Lila and Lenù end up as singular, lonely characters. Yet the promise of literary and artistic collaboration between women—women reading together, women writing together—is a persistent and seductive fantasy across the novels. Collaboration emerges as a source of artistic bliss and temporary enchantment as well as an opportunity for solidarity among women. How have your experiences with collaboration across media (adaptation) and language (translation) approached or fallen short of this fantasy?

EF: Yes, and it’s not always easy. In general it seems easier for women to collaborate with men. There’s probably a very old habit of submitting to the authority of men, or of developing suitable behavior for pretending to accept it, and meanwhile pursuing our particular aims. Certainly it’s more complicated to recognize the authority of another woman; tradition in that case is more fragile. And yet the path is this: once the expertise of the other woman is recognized, we have to learn to collaborate. It works if, in a relationship between the person in charge and the subordinate, the first wants the other to grow and free herself from her subordinate status, and the second gains her autonomy without feeling obliged to diminish the other. Conflicts are inevitable, but we have to persist. It should never be forgotten that women are stronger together and can achieve astonishing results.


ME: Can you say more about why it is difficult to recognize the authority of another woman?

EF: Although things are changing, in some corner of our brain we continue to think that true authority is male, and that every woman with authority has it only because males have given it to her. It’s as if in that tiny corner we were saying to ourselves: why do I submit to a woman when I could replace her if I go to the true source of power? It’s a trend that should be fought against, by demonstrating through the excellence and force of our works that female authority isn’t a concession from men, doesn’t have value only in the women’s space to which they tend to relegate us, but is an autonomous quality and an asset that is fundamental for the whole human race.


ME: In a previous interview with the Times, you suggested that the children who showed up at the auditions for My Brilliant Friend were “spectators who hope to become actors, either for play or a shot at deliverance.” Last week when I spoke to Saverio, I also spent an afternoon with Ludovica, Elisa, Gaia, and Margharita, the four girls who play the parts of Lila and Lenu. Something that struck me about them is that they have all read your novels—I imagine they are among your youngest readers. For them, the experience of learning to embody your characters has also served as a literary education. (Elisa, for instance, is now reading Little Women; Margharita has moved on to Elsa Morante.) What might young readers—young women readers in particular—learn from the Neapolitan novels?

EF: I don’t know how to answer you. I hope the books communicate the urgent need for solidarity between women. Not only that. I’d like the youngest readers to take from them the necessity of being properly prepared: not in order to be co-opted into male hierarchies but in order to construct a world different from the one we know, and to govern it. Reading good books, always studying, regardless of the work she intends to do, should be a part of every girl’s plan for her life. The only way not to let what we’ve gained be taken away from us is to be smart and capable, to learn to design the world better than men have so far done.


ME: Your readers have an extraordinary desire to open imagined channels of communication with you; to write about their experiences reading your novels. (For example, I recently saw a play in which four Ferrante readers become so absorbed by the Neapolitan novels they start transforming into the characters and writing about their transformations—a kind of magical realist fan fiction.) How do you make sense of the fervor with which the Neapolitan novels have been greeted? Has the reception of the novels surprised you? Has it revealed to you anything you did not already know about their distinctiveness?

EF: I think that writers never really know what book they’ve written. We tell a story and try to do our best, pouring onto the page our experience, our literary sensibility, without sparing ourselves. I realized very slowly that the book contained in itself much more than what I thought I had written. Certainly I wished to describe a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Certainly I knew clearly that Lila would contain the worst and the best of what I know about my sex. But only in time, for example, did I discover how effective the neighborhood was, and the figures who populate it. Or the seductive banality of Nino Sarratore.


ME: The actresses wanted me to ask you a question on their behalf: Have you seen them on screen and, if so, did you glimpse the characters you created in their performances? Did they capture the sensibilities of Lila and Lenu?

EF: I’ve seen the first two episodes. The child Lila is perfect, which will make things hard for the actresses who have to continue the story. The child Elena also effectively sets up the character of the narrator, which is in many ways indecipherable.


ME: One of the most illuminating parts of Frantumaglia for me is your exchange with Mario Martone and the incredible detail with which you attend to the structure of individual scenes, lines, costumes, sets as they are described in his script for Troubling Love. Can you give me some examples of scenes, lines of dialogue, or actor directions from My Brilliant Friend that you discussed at length with Saverio? Were there instances where you resisted or vetoed his initial interpretation of a scene? (In our conversation, Saverio mentioned the beginning (the frame narrative) and the end (the banquet).)

EF: My experience with Martone was brief. He sent me the screenplay, I sent him my impressions on reading it. I did the same thing with Costanzo, in the same way, but the work went on much longer, the exchanges of letters were more numerous. My task was to read and annotate the eight treatments and the eight screenplays that Costanzo and his collaborators were writing. I confined myself to saying what I thought when I felt that the story wasn’t working. Maybe in more than a few cases I was overly frank. Maybe I intervened, with some presumptuousness, in irrelevant details. The problem is that I’m not an expert, and I thought the whole time that stories and screenplays were the film, that every line was therefore crucial. In reality the set is really the important place. The work of writing is a point of departure, it merely traces a map that is to help the director give form—an enormous amount of work—to the story through images.


ME: People frequently ask you about your literary-historical influences, but I am curious about your engagement with contemporary art and literature. What living writers do you enjoy reading? What films do you enjoy watching? What music do you enjoy listening to?

EF: I would have to give a very complex answer, talking about various stages of my life. I’ll answer you some other time.


ME: The novels are not written in Neapolitan dialect. Lorenzo Miele (the executive producer) and Saverio described a densely mediated process of reconstructing and translating the dialect for the television show: hiring a historical linguistic to recreate the 1950s idiom, sending the script to you to check it, then sending it to Ann Goldstein to translate it into English for HBO. Can you talk a little bit about the complications—and perhaps the betrayals—of this layered translation? From the perspective of an Italian spectator, does dialect offer new possibilities for representation?

EF: Yes, in the book there is no dialect but a dialectal cadence strengthened at times by brief insertions of Neapolitan. The film, on the other hand, needed the dialect of the neighborhood, that is, a dialect that was harsh, pre-television, and that in Elena, and also in Lila, would later yield to average educated Italian. That work was done in the screenplay and gives, at least to the Italian viewer, the opportunity to rediscover what impoverished, essentially dialect-speaking Italy was like.


ME: Were there any subplots you discarded from the novels? Were there characters you initially thought you would develop as more rounded, substantial presences that you relegated to a minor status?

EF: No. The book kept all the elements that were present in the first draft. It was a very rare instance, for me, of a story written without structural reconsiderations.


ME: For the past two months, my son has developed an obsession with The Beach at Night despite my sense that he was not the target audience for it. Why did you decide to write a children’s book? How did it differ from writing a novel like My Brilliant Friend, which is focalized through a child’s point of view?

EF: I wrote The Beach at Night for a four-year-old friend of mine who, to her great disappointment, had just had a little sister. It originated in a book I had just finished, “The Lost Daughter.” I was very surprised that my little book was considered unsuitable for young children—my friend had liked it. I’ve always believed that stories for children should have the same energy, the same authenticity, as good books for adults. It’s a mistake to think that childhood needs syrupy fables. The traditional fairy tales weren’t made with cotton candy.


ME: My son also just had a little brother. He is also disappointed by it. Perhaps he’s a better reader than I’ve given him credit for.


Elena Ferrante’s answers translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein



In its November 4 issue, the New York Times Magazine published a feature by Merve Emre on the novels of Elena Ferrante and the HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend. Emre’s article included excerpts from an interview with Ferrante—the only interview the author has granted to an English language outlet on the occasion of the TV series premiere on November 18. Below, by agreement with Ms. Emre, is the complete text of their exchange, conducted over email in September 2018.

In a rare interview, Elena Ferrante describes the writing process behind the Neapolitan novels – Los Angeles Times

MAY 17, 2018

Seven years ago, it took just one book for an as-yet-unknown Italian novelist to become one of the most prominent personalities of the early 21st century. What made the phenomenon even more unheard of was that it involved an author who had written an epic with undeniable literary ambitions, not a book for young readers, like the “Harry Potter” series. It was a saga with numerous allusions to Italian history, anchored by geography to a small corner of Naples, and these facts seemed to condemn in advance its success as an export.

But the triumph of “My Brilliant Friend” is also stupefying because its author does no promotion at all. Elena Ferrante is a woman without a face, whose identity is known only to her Italian publisher, E/O. Her name is a pseudonym, its sound a discreet homage to the great Italian novelist Elsa Morante, author of “Arturo’s Island” — whose work, Ferrante says here, she has always appreciated. No one has ever succeeded in revealing Ferrante’s true identity, although certain names have circulated in the press: Domenico Starnone, a Neapolitan screenwriter and novelist, and winner of the Strega Prize in 2001; or Anita Raja, a Roman translator. Nearly two years ago, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti published a scoop, identifying Raja as Ferrante, after having scoured her tax returns and deciding that her assets exceeded that of the average income of a person in her profession. Against all odds, the supposed revelation of the identity of Ferrante provoked a worldwide scandal.

For her readers, Ferrante must be allowed to remain anonymous, should she wish to be. An international outcry rose up, from enraged readers who sought to protect the writer they love, and whose anonymity they wish to preserve. Nothing of the like had ever been seen before.

The series that begins with “My Brilliant Friend” has sold more than 5.5 million copies in 42 countries, with more than 2 million copies sold in the U.S. Published in America by Europa Editions, the books are the successful result of an editorial policy that favors demanding work and patience over instant gratification. For literary professionals, it is a sign that in a time of faint-heartedness, there is still another path to follow: Rather than publishing feel-good books for silly entitled people, you can reach a wide audience betting on real literature.

Where does the great enthusiasm for the tumultuous portrait of Lila and Elena (also called Lenù), the products of an underprivileged neighborhood of Naples, whose friendship begins in the late 1950s, come from? Aside from the thirst for long narratives, which we also see in the incredible boom in TV series, readers of the world seem to want to read about genuine feelings. Who among us has not dreamed of living the complex and spellbinding relationship of these “brilliant” friends? Lila gives up her studies to work in the family shoe factory, while Elena decides to receive a classical education and ends up leaving Naples to seek her professional fortune elsewhere. The proliferation of plot points and the multitude of characters, at a time when the hallmark is simplicity, is a further enticement. The fact remains that the book is first and foremost a war machine: It seduces slowly and possesses a hitherto unseen power of attraction and that irresistible je ne sais quoi that makes an overnight success.

And Ferrante? Behind her mask, the novelist distills her public statements with the stinginess of a pharmacist. The interviews she has given may be counted on one hand, and they have been exclusively conducted via email, with her Italian publisher as intermediary. Her desire for anonymity is non-negotiable. For her, once a book has been finished, it must stand on its own. Breaking her near-constant silence here, she explains how she conceived “My Brilliant Friend” in secrecy. She confides the profound joy she gets from writing and speaks of the pleasure she feels in responding to the curiosity of her readers through the volumes she writes. Far from having shut herself in an ivory tower, she discusses #metoo and launches a stirring appeal for the enduring gains of feminism. She compares the experiences of the great Hollywood actresses to those of the poor women of Naples, in a particularly stirring defense. Finally, she gives some unprecedented clues that may help us understand not who she is, but something that all in all is the same: why she writes.

Do you recall when you first had the idea for “My Brilliant Friend”?

I can’t give you a precise answer. It may have had its origin in the death of a friend of mine, or in a crowded wedding celebration, or perhaps in the need to return to themes and images of an earlier book, “The Lost Daughter.” One never knows where a story comes from; it’s the product of a variety of suggestions that, together with others that you are not aware of and never will be, excite your mind.

Did you know from the beginning that the complete work would require four volumes?

No. In its first rough draft, the story of Lila and Lenù fit very easily into a single, substantial volume. Only when I began to work on that first text did I understand that there would be two, three, four volumes.

Was the whole story planned in advance before the actual writing started?

No, I never plan my stories. A detailed outline is enough for me to lose interest in the whole thing. Even a brief oral summary makes the desire to write what I have in mind vanish. I am one of those who begin to write knowing only a few essential features of the story they intend to tell. The rest they discover line by line.

The first book of the series was published [in Italy] in 2011, the last in 2014 — a short period of time for such an ambitious endeavor. Had you written most of the series before the publication of the first volume? Can you tell us about the timing of the writing/publication of the novel?

I started in 2009 and spent a year, more or less, completing the entire story, with its various turning points. Then I began to revise, and I discovered with great pleasure that from the first page, the text was expanding; it grew and grew, becoming more detailed. At the end of 2010, given the mass of pages that had accumulated merely for telling the story of the childhood and adolescence of Lila and Lenù, the publisher and I decided to publish it in several volumes.

I imagine that when the first novel of the series was published, you were able to write in tranquility. Then came the novel’s extraordinary success, which could have jeopardized your writing. How were you able to keep your work from being disrupted by that overwhelming success?

It was a completely new experience for me. As a child, I liked telling stories and finding effective words for the small audience of kids of my age who gathered around me. It was electrifying to sense their encouragement, to feel that my listeners wanted me to continue, to pick up the story again the next day, the next week. It was a thrilling endeavor and an exciting responsibility. I think I felt something similar between 2011 and 2014. Once I was cut off from the media clamor — which was possible thanks to the absence that I chose starting in 1990 — that childhood pleasure returned: of giving form to a story while an increasingly vast and attentive audience wants you to tell more and more. While readers were reading the first volume, I was refining and finishing the second; while readers were reading the second, I was refining and completing the third; and so on.

Looking back, how would you describe the writing process? Was it effortless and smooth from the start? Or, on the contrary, did you have moments of doubt? Did you go through many drafts, with a lot of cutting and editing?

In the past, I’ve had a lot of problems with writing. I’ve always written, ever since adolescence, but it was a struggle, and I was generally dissatisfied with the result. The consequence is that I’ve rarely been convinced that I should publish. In the case of this very long story, things went differently. The first draft rolled along without running into any obstacles: The pure pleasure of telling a story dominated. Also, the work that ensued in the following years was surprisingly easy, a kind of permanent party. The honing of the four volumes, their polishing for publication, was essentially faithful to the first rough drafts and at the same time expanded and complicated the material. No crisis, in other words, no doubts, very few cuts, few rewritings, a cascade of new inserts. In my mind, there remains the impression of a tidal wave, and when it’s gone, you’re happy that you’re still alive.

In a letter to Mario Martone, you said that any distraction could make writing seem unnecessary, pointing out the fragility of it all. However, no writer seems stronger than you are, and more capable of building a colossal work of fiction. Would you agree that this combination of fragility and strength is essential to your writing?

My greatest fear is of suddenly feeling that to devote so much of my life to writing is meaningless. It’s a sensation that I’ve felt very often, and I’m afraid that I will again. I need a lot of determination, a stubborn, passionate adherence to the page, not to feel the urgency of other things to do, a more active way of spending my life. So yes, I’m fragile. It’s all too easy for me to notice the other things and feel guilty. And so it’s pride that I need, more than strength. While I’m writing, I have to believe that it’s up to me to tell this or that story, and that it would be wrong to avoid it or not to complete it to the best of my abilities.

Where does the vital energy of your writing come from?

I don’t know if my writing has the energy you say it does. Of course, if that energy exists, it’s because either it finds no other outlets or, consciously or not, I’ve refused to give it other outlets. Of course, when I write, I draw on parts of myself, of my memory, that are agitated, fragmented, that make me uncomfortable. A story, in my view, is worth writing only if its core comes from there.

 In your description, Naples is rough, violent and unpleasant, and even more so in the second half of the fourth volume, where Lila and Lenù have to confront violence on every side. Have you witnessed acts of extreme violence in Naples yourself? How have Neapolitans been able to cope with violence over the years, and have they developed a particular understanding of the violence innate in human beings, and do you perhaps share that?

One has to be very fortunate not to be touched even slightly by violence and its various manifestations in Naples. But perhaps that’s true of New York, London, Paris. Naples isn’t worse than other cities in Italy or in the world. I’ve spent a lot of time coming to an understanding of it. In the past, I used to think that only in Naples did the lawful continuously lose its boundaries and become confused with the unlawful, that only in Naples did good feelings suddenly, violently, without any break, become bad feelings. Today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask. Since it is a city by nature of astonishing beauty, the ugly — criminality, violence, corruption, connivance, the aggressive fear in which we live defenseless, the deterioration of democracy — stands out more clearly.

Lila and Lenù suffer a lot throughout the books. Why did you choose to subject them to so many tragic experiences of all kinds?

It doesn’t seem to me that their sufferings are very different from those which women endure every day in every part of the world, especially if they’re born poor. Lila and Lenù fall in love, marry, are betrayed, betray, search for a role in the world, face discrimination, give birth, raise children, are sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy, experience loss and death. I do use the novelistic, but relatively sparingly. The emotional bond we establish with characters is generally what makes their story seem like an endless series of misfortunes. In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others, we feel their suffering, only when we learn to love them.

In the fourth volume, why did you choose to make Nino so cruel and superficial?

I wanted to describe the effects of superficiality when it’s combined with a good education and moderate intelligence. Nino is a smart but superficial man, a type of man I’m very familiar with.

Why did the narrative require the traumatic and nightmarish disappearance of Tina, in the fourth volume, near the end of the story?

Here I will decline to give you my reasons — I prefer that readers find their own way. I can only emphasize that that event was always, even before I began to write, one of the few definite and inevitable stops on the narrative journey that I had in mind.

In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others. We feel their suffering only when we learn to love them.

Elena Ferrante

Lila is enthusiastic about new electronic tools, like PC computers. She seems to be driven by an instinctual brilliance, and yet, surprisingly, she understands these logical machines. Is she more unpredictable than Lenù, or is it the other way around?

Lila, in my intentions, is never enthusiastic. She applies her intelligence to whatever, for one reason or another, comes into the field of action that she herself is given, starting from the moment she is forced to leave school. It’s because her father is a shoemaker that she designs shoes. It’s because Enzo is taking correspondence courses from IBM that she becomes involved with electronics. Unlike Lenù, who uses education to force the boundaries of the neighborhood and escape, eagerly aspiring to write, Lila acts brilliantly on what turns up, without using up her own capacities in any of the things she happens to get involved in. If one wanted to put it schematically, the only long-range project that really excites Lila is the life of her friend.

In the book, women struggle. Men often take advantage of them. How do you feel about the #MeToo protests throughout the world?

I believe that they have put a spotlight on what women have always known and have always been more or less silent about. Patriarchal domination, even — despite appearances — in the West, is still very entrenched, and each of us, in the most diverse places, in the most varied forms, suffers the humiliation of being a silent victim or a fearful accomplice or a reluctant rebel or even a diligent accuser of victims rather than of the rapists. Paradoxically, I don’t feel that there are great differences between the women of the Neapolitan neighborhood whose story I told and Hollywood actresses or the educated, refined women who work at the highest levels of our socioeconomic system. And raising one’s voice, saying, “Me too,” seems a good thing, but only if we maintain a sense of proportion: Just causes in particular are damaged by excesses. Even though the power of [offenders] large and small at the center of the world or on its peripheries lies in not being ashamed of the various forms of rape they subject us to and, by means of a repulsive stratagem, in making us think that it is we who should be ashamed.

Would you predict — and would you call for — a new feminism to emerge from #MeToo?

A certain disdain for the feminism of mothers and grandmothers has spread among the younger generations in recent years. There is a conviction that the few rights we have are a fact of nature and not the product of an extremely hard cultural and political battle. I hope that things change and that girls will realize that we have millenniums of subservience behind us, that the struggle should continue and that if we lower our guard, it won’t take much to eliminate what, at least on paper, four generations of women have with great difficulty gained.

Would you agree that your novel belongs to a tradition of popular narratives (such as those of Alexandre Dumas), with a lot of action and characters, rather than to a modernist, more minimalist approach to storytelling?

No. I can decide to reuse some of the powerful devices of popular literature, but I do so, like it or not, in an era completely different from the one in which that literature performed its task. I mean that with some regret, I can in no way be Dumas. To draw on the great tradition of the popular novel doesn’t mean creating, for better or for worse, that type of narrative but rather using it, distorting it, violating its rules, disappointing its expectations, all in the service of a story of our time. Rummaging in the great historical warehouse of the novel and the anti-novel is today, in my opinion, a duty for anyone who is by profession a narrator. Diderot could write “The Nun” but also “Jacques the Fatalist.” We can erase the boundary between literary experiences that are different from one another and use them both, at the same time, to give a shape to this historical moment. A lot of action, many characters or the minimalism you allude to, taken separately, don’t carry us far today. Let’s try to get out of useless cages.

You once said that you discovered Flaubert when you were quite young, in Naples. When did you first fall in love with a book, or with a character, and also with literature?

Yes, I really loved “Madame Bovary.” As I girl, when I read, I dragged the stories and the characters into the world I lived in, and “Emma,” I don’t know why, seemed close to many of the women in my family. But long before “Madame Bovary,” I loved “Little Women,” I loved Jo. That book is at the origin of my love for writing.

Have you been influenced by women writers (possibly French, like Colette, Duras, etc.)?

As a girl, I read all kinds of things, in no particular order, and I didn’t pay attention to the names of the authors — whether they were male or female didn’t interest me. I was enthralled by [the characters] Moll Flanders, by the Marquise de Merteuil, by Elizabeth Bennet, by Jane Eyre, by Anna Karenina, and I didn’t care about the sex of the writer. Later, in the late ’70s, I began to be interested in writing by women. If I stick with French writers, I read almost all of Marguerite Duras. But the book of hers that I’ve spent the most time with, studied most closely, is “The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein”; it’s her most complex book, but the one you can learn the most from.

How do you feel about female writing? Do you believe that the category exists — that there is female writing and male writing? For example, Elsa Morante versus Hemingway? As for your own style, would you say it’s a combination of both male and female?

Certainly, female writing exists, but mainly because even writing is powerfully conditioned by the historical-cultural construction that is gender. That said, gender has an increasingly wide mesh, its rules have been relaxed, and it is more and more difficult to reconstruct what has influenced and formed us as writers. For example, I learned from the books I loved and studied, by male and female authors, and I could easily name them, but I’ve also been deeply affected by sentences whose provenance I no longer remember, whether it was male or female. The literary apprentice, in short, passes through channels that are hard to identify. So I would avoid saying that I was formed by this or that author. Above all, I would avoid saying that I was formed essentially by women’s writing, even though I very much loved and still love “House of Liars,” by Elsa Morante. We are in a period of great change, and the presentation of gender is at risk of being not only unconvincing but not really valid.

Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water.

When you read a book, what do you appreciate most?

Unexpected events, meaningful contradictions, sudden swerves in the language, in the psychology of the characters.

In the book, motherhood is an enemy of writing (Lenù is so busy bringing up her daughters that she can’t get the concentration she needs). In your own experience, how is it best to write? Alone? Seeing no one? Living a secluded life? Or, on the contrary, going out a lot, drawing inspiration from meeting people, possibly being in love?

When one is in love, one writes very well. And, in general, if someone does not have experience of life, what does he or she write about? Spending one’s time focused only on writing is the ambition of an adolescent, of a sad adolescent. Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water. That said, life, when it has the force of a tidal wave, can devour the time for writing. Motherhood, in my experience, is certainly capable of sweeping away the need to write. Conceiving a child, bringing it into the world, raising it is a marvelous and painful experience that over a fairly long span of time — especially if you don’t have the money to buy the time and energy of other women — takes away space and meaning from all the rest. Naturally, if the need to write is strong, you sooner or later find an arrangement that leaves you some room. But that holds for all the fundamental experiences of life. They hit us, they overwhelm us, and then, if we don’t end up dead in a corner, we write.

 Was it hard to wake up one day thinking, “The story of Lila and Lenù is over. I’m finished with it.” Like giving birth and suddenly feeling empty in some way?

The metaphor of birth applied to literary works has never seemed convincing to me. The metaphor of weaving seems more effective. Writing is one of the prostheses we have invented to empower our body. Writing is a skill, it’s a forcing of our natural limits, it requires long training to assimilate techniques, use them with increasing expertise and invent new ones, if we find we need them. Weaving says all this well. We work for months, for years, weaving a text, the best that we are capable of at the moment. And when it’s finished, it’s there, forever itself, while we change and will change, ready to try out other weaves.

Have you possibly considered writing a sequel, or side stories (the way J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter)? The ending does allow it, doesn’t it?

No, the story of Lila and Lenù is over. But I know other stories and hope I’ll be able to write them. As for publishing them, I don’t know.

Your novel values friendship more than anything else, even more than love, which is unpredictable and can vanish. Do you value friendship in that way, in your own life?

Yes, friendship has to do with love but is less at risk of being spoiled. It’s not constantly threatened by sexual practices, by the danger that exists in the mixture of feeling and the use of bodies to give and be given pleasure. Sexual friendship is more widespread today than in the past, a game of bodies and elective affinities that tries to keep at bay both the power of love and the rite of pure sex. But with what results I don’t know.

I have been asking many writers about where they write. The most recent was Tom Wolfe, describing his desk and the colors of his office walls — blue. Could you describe the place where you write (or, if not, can you tell us about some objects that you care about and which are around when you write)?

I write anywhere. I don’t have a room of my own. I know that I’d like a bare space, with white, empty walls. But it’s more an aestheticizing fantasy than a real necessity. When I write, if it’s really going well, I soon forget where I am.

This interview originally appeared in the French newsmagazine L’Obs in January 2018. Jacob is a L’Obs staff writer covering books and is the author of a nonfiction book “La guerre littéraire” (Héloïse d’Ormesson publishing).

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym; the bestselling author prefers not to be known. Sarah Wilkins / For The Times

CBC Radio

Ann Goldstein on the art of translating for mysterious Elena Ferrante

Guests: Ann Goldstein

The Current
Ann Goldstein on the art of translating for mysterious Elena Ferrante

00:00 23:38

AMT: Hello. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti and you’re listening to The Current.

[Music: Theme]

AMT: Still to come, the fight for safe private toilets is underway in South Africa where a woman was murdered on her way to use a public bathroom. We’ll talk about the link between sanitation and sexual assault in South Africa. But first, this is perhaps the closest you will come to hearing from Italy’s great mysterious storyteller, Elena Ferrante.


I did it because I believed that she was very much a public figure. And when millions of books are bought by readers, in a way I think readers acquire the right to know something about the person who created the work. I personally think that. But most importantly, I believe that Ferrante and her publishers agreed with this point of view. Her self-declared autobiographical Writer’s Journey, Frantumaglia, which is being published right now next month in the US, was presented to the public as her answer to the legitimate request of detailed information about her.

AMT: Italian journalist Claudio Gatti drew the wrath of literary fans when he sought to unmask the true identity of the best-selling Italian author who goes by the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. His findings pointed to Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator. Her editors deny it. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels is wildly popular worldwide with what borders on a cult following. But Elena Ferrante has wanted no part of the limelight. She insists on remaining anonymous. Her true identity has mattered little to her readers, who say they’ve become addicted to her tales of the rich decades-long friendship of Lenu and Lila that begins in Naples of the 1950s. If you have read any of Ms. Ferrante’s work in translation, then you will be acquainted with the words of my next guest. Ann Goldstein is the English translator of all of Ms. Ferrante’s books. She is an editor at the New Yorker magazine. She is often the public face of the Neapolitan series. Elena Ferrante’s most recent work is Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a collection of letters by and interviews with the reclusive writer to give us a window into her thoughts on her characters and her writing process. And Ann Goldstein joins me in our Toronto studio. Welcome.


AMT: Are you as—you must be as in love with these books as the rest of us are.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: I am. Yes, I love these books. All of her books, in fact.

AMT: I have to tell you by the time I came to the fourth of the Neapolitan quartet, I started to read it very slowly and even put it down for a while because I didn’t want to let those girls go. They were just—you become entwined in their story.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, I was very worried when I was reading the fourth novel because I couldn’t—well, working on the fourth novel because I was—I couldn’t, I didn’t, couldn’t figure out how she was going to end it. I knew it was the last of the novels of the—originally actually she had planned it to be three and then she realized she couldn’t do what she wanted to do and so it became four. But I just kept thinking how is she going to end this in a satisfying way? And I can’t say that I slowed down because I was under pressure of time to get the translation done. But I thought it was beautifully and satisfyingly ended.

AMT: When did you first get introduced to the works of Elena Ferrante?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: In 2004, I think the Italian publisher, Sandro and Sandra Ferri who had this publishing company, E/O, Edizioni E/O in Rome, they were her Italian publishers and they had decided that they wanted to publish books in English and to open up essentially an American branch of their publishing company called Europa Additions. And The Days of Abandonment, which was actually Ferrante’s second novel, was the first book that they decided to publish and they looked for a translator and somehow they found me.

AMT: And how did they find you? You have a day job. [chuckles]

ANN GOLDSTEIN: [chuckles] Well, I had been translating for about 10 years and I think they got my name off the PEN website. They had asked about three or four translators to do samples and they chose me for which I was very grateful because as soon as I started reading The Days of Abandonment, I thought I have to translate this book.

AMT: And so when you got to the quartet—so you were translating it as she went along. You didn’t like—

ANN GOLDSTEIN: The quartet. Yeah. More or less, yes, Well, she had—yes, that’s true because she hadn’t finished even when she—I think she says in probably in Frantumaglia, that she had this idea for the quartet. She originally thought it was just going to be a very short novel. Then she realized it was going to be a somewhat longer novel and she still thought it would be a single book, but her publishers dissuaded her. They said you can’t. It was clearly going to be big. I mean long, that is to say. She said I think that she had ideas about certain points, certain plot points or certain things that she wanted to develop but she didn’t really know the details. And so as she was writing, the details came to her or she made them up, whatever. But anyway, I forget where I was going with this.

AMT: When it comes to translating the novels, what kind of pressure do you feel?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, there’s time pressure of course. I mean there was with the Neapolitan novels because she wanted to—the publisher wanted to bring them out one a year and they weren’t really finished until they practically they were published in Italian. So there was time pressure. But yeah, I mean as readers became more in love with the books, there was pressure to do it well, to do it—I mean there’s always pressure to do it well, to do the translation well. I’m not sure what else you mean by pressure.

AMT: Well, yeah, and you know there’s so much talk of the masterful prose, of just the way the words just exist in our minds. I don’t even want to say on the page because when I read things like that, they come into my mind. I mean maybe just help us understand your process because you see that in Italian and you must then move that into another language.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I mean it’s a interesting process. I mean it’s—I usually—well, usually I’ve read the book first. In the case of the second, the last three of those novels, I actually was translating as I was reading. And so I felt that I was experiencing them sort of in real time. But usually I read things pretty quickly. I mean I translate the first draft very quickly and then I go back and I revise and I revise. And often I try to stay close to the text basically and sometimes I move away from it and then I—with these novels, I very often went back to the original translation because somehow I had captured something there, I thought, that was closer to the Italian. I mean the Italian, it’s very dense. It’s kind of a run-on language and actually English readers, many English readers have commented on that, on the sort of run-on sentences. I mean Italian sort of, it accommodates the run-on sentence more easily than English does. The prose is a little bit more—the syntax is a little bit more flexible. So capturing that, the intensity and the density of her sentences in English was sometimes a challenge.

AMT: So and you said you sometimes went back to the original, your original translation, almost like your visceral feeling as you translated first time around.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yes. And actually, Ferrante in the Frantumaglia, in some of these interviews, she talks about how she doesn’t like beautiful writing. She likes ugly writing because the ugly writing is what conveys the intensity of what she wants to convey. And I think that sometimes that was the case with the translation too, that you know it didn’t want it to be too smooth.

AMT: Well, I have more questions about the translation. But do you know her? Have you met her?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: No, no. As far as I know, the only people who know who she is are her publishers. And I would say that, just to go back to the Gatti that you played before, I mean she did not present Frantumaglia as an autobiography. I mean it wasn’t meant to be an autobiography. It was meant to be sort of a collection of well, her letters, of sort of a window on to the writer’s process, not into anything personal.

AMT: It’s interesting because he’s again trying to put motive and personality into the book and that’s exactly what she’s trying to keep away.

ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yes, exactly.

AMT: Like herself out of it.


Continue reading


‘Be Silent, Recover My Strength, Start Again’: In Conversation with Elena Ferrante

Speaking with the author of the Neapolitan Quartet novels and Frantumaglia about why readers have trouble with challenging portrayals of women, the supposed sin of narcissism, and smoking cigarettes.

I interviewed Elena Ferrante by email over the summer of 2016. This was about a month before the New York Review of Books published a long article by an Italian journalist alleging her “true” identity. She read my questions (which were written in English) and wrote her responses in Italian. Her replies were translated by Ann Goldstein, the English translator of Ferrante’s many books. I had been hesitant about conducting this interview when I was offered the opportunity, for I admire Ferrante’s reticence. Yet, debating it with myself, it seemed it would be a mistake not to ask this great writer questions, if I had the chance.

For those who are unaware, Ferrante is one of the most celebrated contemporary writers in the world, and rightly so. In 2011, she released the first of a series of four books (each around 350 pages in length) called The Neapolitan Quartet, which follow two female friends from the time of their childhood in Naples in the 1950s to the present day. The books thrillingly unmask the consciousness and social situation of these women, tracing the complex bonds and political struggles of several generations of families in twentieth-century Naples. Reading these books, I felt a keen loss over the many great books that had not been written by women down through time; Ferrante made me long for even more first-rate writers to map (and to have mapped) the many underwritten aspects of the female experience. To me, the books have a distinctly female point of view: the point of view not of the natural victor but of one who has to fight for the right to observe.

Her three earlier and shorter novels (Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter, published in Italian between 1992 and 2006) are like tinctures of the quartet: exquisitely precise and intensely felt, they magnify moments in a life and are written in a style and language that calls to mind few others—perhaps Clarice Lispector, for being just as brutal, penetrating, and heartbreaking. Ferrante’s books are profoundly contemporary while giving the same satisfaction as many nineteenth-century novels, as if Ferrante were not living in a landscape of busily competing media, but rather writing in a world where the quiet of readers can be taken for granted. She is formally risk-taking yet is a masterful storyteller. Her books rush you along in a swell of complicity, curiosity, feeling, and suspense. I cannot think of a single person I know who has not read Ferrante only to fall helplessly into her world. She has collapsed the gap between the sort of books that writers feel awe for and that the reading public can’t get enough of—the rarest thing.

Speaking personally, as a writer who has engaged in the various publicity and marketing strategies that many of us allow, I was interested to talk to Ferrante about how she knew from the beginning that she wanted to avoid the performance of self. I wanted to ask about how she—as a great illustrator of the human condition—has navigated such experiences as motherhood, discipleship, and rebellion. Naturally, I was curious to know how she wrote her books, but I didn’t ask too many craft questions because I know that for any writer, composition is ultimately a mystery.

Ferrante has managed, for decades, that difficult and enviable thing: the maintenance of total privacy as a human being, along with total openness as a creator through her art. I, and many of her devoted readers, hope there is even more of that art still to come. We are so grateful she took the time to do this interview, although as you will see, she doesn’t consider this an interview at all.


Sheila Heti: You’ve remarked that you forget the books you read. Do you think there’s some connection between being a reader who forgets (I am too), and being able to create and write? Maybe forgetting is a subconscious kind of remembering that allows writers to recombine what they’ve taken from literature, in ways that are particular to them.

Elena Ferrante: Yes, that’s probably the case. I do forget, I forget especially the books I’ve loved very much. I have an impression of them, I have a feeling for them, but to discuss them I would have to reread them. If I had a clear memory that allowed me to cite passages, point out crucial moments, any attempt at writing of my own would seem to me lost at the start. Imagination is said to be a function of memory. I prefer to think that it’s a function of nostalgia. We compose stories knowing very well that we are the last to arrive. And yet every time it seems to us that we are returning to the moment when the first human being, with nothing but the truth of his experience and the urge to reinvent it at every step, began to tell a story.

You once said, “I tend to edit and then inevitably revert to the original draft, when I see what I’ve lost by editing.” I agree: there is always some power in the way a person first catches the words on the page. Can you talk about your instinct to keep the rawness with your instinct to clean up? If you often prefer the first draft to the edited draft, what does your editing process consist of?

I detest vapid, sugary, sentimental tones and I try to get rid of them. I detest refinement when it cancels out naturalness, and so I look for precision without going too far. I could continue like that, with a fine list of intentions, but it’s just talk. In fact I move by instinct, a spontaneous movement that, if I put it in order, becomes merely a banal guidebook. So let’s say that, pulled this way and that by countless readings, by varied layers of taste, by inclinations and idiosyncrasies, I generally aim at what seems to me perfection. Then, however, perfection suddenly seems an insane excess of refinement and I return to versions that seem effective precisely because they are imperfect.

Picasso said the new work of art always looks ugly at first, especially to its creator. Did you find your books ugly in the way Picasso meant?

Yes, certainly yes, but not because I feel the book as new; rather, because I feel it as mine, tarnished by contact with my experience.

So much contemporary female writing is accused of narcissism. Have you escaped the charge of narcissism, or have you received it? I’d like to bind this question to your comments about women who “practice a conscious surveillance on themselves” who before were “watched over by parents, by brothers, by husbands, by the community.” You have written that women who practise surveillance on themselves are the “heroines of our time,” but it’s precisely these women—real and fictional—who are accused of the sin of narcissism, as if a woman looking at herself (rather than being looked at by a man) was insulting to everyone. How do you understand this charge?

I’ve never felt narcissism to be a sin. It seems, rather, a cognitive tool that, like all cognitive tools, can be used in a distorted way. No, I think it’s necessary to be absolutely in love with ourselves. It’s only by reflecting on myself with attention and care that I can reflect on the world. It’s only by turning my gaze on myself that I can understand others, feel them as my kin. On the other hand it’s only by assiduously watching myself that I can take control and train myself to give the best of myself. The woman who practises surveillance on herself without letting herself be the object of surveillance is the great innovation of our times.

Your books resist the pressure to be “correct” in a feminist sense. For me, I have noticed that often it’s women who react most negatively to portrayals of women that are “un-feminist.” Why do you think such readers have a hard time with portrayals of women that conflict with their ideals? Do they feel the female author is somehow betraying them?

“Correctness” has never been a concern of mine when I write. Nor have I ever felt, in telling a story, that I had to adapt the story or the character to the demands of a cultural alignment, to the urgent needs of political battles even if I share them a hundred percent. Literature is not the sounding board of ideologies. I write always and only about what it seems to me I know thoroughly, and I would not bend the truth of a story to any higher necessity, not even to some ethical imperative or some prudent consistency with myself.

You’ve said, “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard—out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness—we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.” This is very striking to me. What does it mean to you to lower your guard? Women are taught to give ourselves fully, with great trust, in love… but you think we shouldn’t?

It seems to me risky to forget that no one gave us the freedoms we have today—we took them. For that very reason they can at any moment be taken away again. So just that, we mustn’t ever lower our guard. It’s wonderful to give oneself fully to another, we women know how to do it. And we should continue. It’s a serious mistake to retreat, giving up the marvelous feelings we’re capable of. Yet it’s indispensable to keep alive the sense of self. In Naples, certain girls who showed the marks of beatings would say, even with pleased half smiles, He hits me because he loves me. No one can dare to hurt us because he loves us, not a lover, not a friend, not even children.

You’ve said, “I feel such a sense of unease and distrust these days that I can no longer write even half a word without fearing that, once published, it might be distorted or purposely taken out of context and used in a malicious way.” I think this is something many writers feel. Have you found a solution for it?

Yes. Be silent, recover my strength, start again.

Do you smoke cigarettes?

Until a few years ago I smoked a lot, then I stopped abruptly. I tell you this because what is written while smoking seems better than that which fears for its health. But we have to learn to do well without necessarily doing harm to others and ourselves.

Do you keep copies of the books you have written and published in the room where you write?


You’ve written, “A novel about today that is engaging and full of characters and events should be a novel about and against the suspension of disbelief.” How does your work avoid the necessity of the suspension of disbelief, and do you find too many novels are written today that require the suspension of disbelief? If readers are trained to suspend their disbelief, are they less effective political actors on their own behalf?

Those words of mine were a political metaphor. I was referring to what seems to me to have happened in recent decades: the transformation of citizens into a public involved in representations of the world that are skillfully constructed in order to suspend incredulity. The citizen risks acting like a fan, an enthusiastic consumer of media narratives that are plausible but deceptive, because those narratives are not the truth but have the appearance of truth. In other words, we have to return to not believing what they tell us. We have to relearn to distinguish between truth and verisimilitude.

Why do you do interviews? How do you decide which interviews to participate in? Are there rules you follow? Why not let the books exist without the interviews? Are you ever going to stop doing interviews altogether? Why not now?

I no longer follow any rule. The main thing is that it doesn’t seem to me that I’m giving interviews. You think that we’re doing an interview? I don’t. In an interview the person being interviewed entrusts his body, his facial expressions, his eyes, his gestures, the way he speaks—an often-improvised speech, inconsistent, poorly connected—to the writing of the interviewer. Something that I can’t accept. What we are doing resembles, rather, a pleasant correspondence. You think about it and write me your questions; I think about it and write my answers. It’s writing, in other words, and I like/am fond of all occasions for writing. In the past it seemed to me that I was unable to come up with answers suitable for publication. Either they were too succinct, a yes or a no, or a short question became an occasion for reflection, and I wrote pages and pages. Now I think I’ve learned something but not necessarily. So no, I don’t give interviews, to anyone, but I find these exchanges in writing increasingly useful—for myself, naturally. It’s writing that should be placed beside that of the books like a fiction not very different from literary fiction. I’m telling you about myself, but you too—a writer, I read one of your books in Italian, which I loved—with your questions are telling me about yourself. I talk about myself, as do you, as a producer of writing. I do it truthfully, addressing not only you and our possible readers but also myself, or at least that substantial part of myself that considers it completely senseless to waste so much time writing and needs reasons that justify the waste. In short, your questions help me to invent myself as an author, to give form, that is, to this unstable, elusive part that I myself know little or nothing about. Something that I imagine has happened to you too, as an author, when you have formulated the questions.

In Magda Szabó’s The Door, Emerence—the intelligent cleaning-woman with a strong inner code of behaviour, who keeps house for the intellectual woman-writer protagonist—reminds me a bit of Lila, and Szabó’s protagonist is reminiscent of your Elena. Yet Emerence is somehow the superior of the pair, as is Lila. Is there something in the figure of the intellectual woman writer that pales in comparison (from the perspective of the woman writing) to the (comparatively) uneducated woman who yet knows and understands the world? Why do so many female writers demean the “intellectual” female figures we create? Do we still not truly value female literary work, women who work with their minds? Is it a kind of self-loathing? Why do we often portray intellectual women as having lost more than they have gained?

You pose a very interesting question; I have to think about it. Why do we invent cultivated, intelligent women and then lower their level or even their pleasure in life? Who knows. Maybe because we’re still incapable of a convincing portrayal of female intelligence. We haven’t completely set aside the literary model that represented us at the side of a superior man who would take care of us and our children. Thus, though we have now acquired the sense of our inner richness and our intellectual autonomy, we portray them in a minor key, as if our capacity to produce ideas and culture were a presumptuous exaggeration, as if, even having something extra, we ourselves didn’t really believe in it. From here, probably, comes the literary invention of secondary female figures who possess that something extra in themselves, remind us of it, assure us that it’s there and should be appreciated. We are still in the middle of the crossing, and literature makes do however it can.

You write in Frantumaglia that you were the sort of child who “apologized for everything.” But as an adult, you realize that goodness “derives not from the absence of guilt but from the capacity to feel true loathing for our daily, recurring, private guilt.” Yet how can a woman ever truly know what she should be guilty for, when women live in a world of codes that have been created by men; when we live in “male cities” (as you have termed it) and when the route to understanding who one is necessarily involves exploring one’s instincts to “disobey”? How can you tell the difference between what you should feel guilty for and what you are made to feel guilty for but shouldn’t feel guilty for?

Our future depends on this connection. There is no true liberation without a strong sense of self. The systematic practice of disobedience is in fact an integral part of male values, and so doesn’t really free us; rather, at times, it crushes us, makes us even more acutely the victims of men’s needs, especially in the realm of sex. We need an ethics of our own to oppose that which the male world has imposed on and claimed from us. We need a hierarchy of our own of merits and faults, and we need to reckon with truth. But that’s possible only if we consider ourselves to be exposed to good and evil like any human being. When literature represents us as the positive pole of life or as having been exposed to evil only as victims—an evil that in the end will turn out to be a good, if looked at with spectacles different from those imposed by males—it is not doing its duty. The duty of literature is to dig to the bottom. We are a subject not only unpredictable but unknown even to ourselves. We have an urgent need for representation and for an ethics of our own. We have the right and the duty to explore ourselves thoroughly, to slip away, to cross the borders that make us suffer. I insist on self-surveillance, which means choice, assumption of responsibility, and the necessity of losing restraint in order to know ourselves, not lose ourselves.

Did you ever fear what you would lose by not participating in the media, festivals, etc.? How did you set about so confidently not pleasing your publisher? And do you think it’s possible for a writer who has sent herself around in the world as a writer to stop? Or does the fact of ever having been seen mean that something is forever lost and any retreat is useless? Finally, have you ever signed a book?

Yes, I made the mistake of signing a hundred copies, some years ago. It was naïve. It seemed to me that since I was doing it at home, in private, it wouldn’t cost me much. Today I think that I could have spared myself even that. I remain of the opinion that a book has to absolutely make it on its own; it shouldn’t even use advertising. Of course, my position is extreme. And among other things the market has by now absorbed it and made the most of it, while the media have readily changed it to gossip and a puzzle to be solved. But for me the small cultural polemic underlying the choices I made twenty-five years ago remains important. I will never consider it finished, and I trust that no one who feels that writing is fundamental will completely set it aside. Good books are stunning charges of vital energy. They have no need of fathers, mothers, godfathers and godmothers. They are a happy event within the tradition and the community that guards the tradition. They express a force capable of expanding autonomously in space and time.

The complete conversation between Elena Ferrante and Sheila Heti can be found in Brick magazine’s Winter 2017 issue, due out at the end of this month.

Corriere Canadese


Literary Links: Gornick on Ferrante, The Novelistic Election and More



Tanslated by Nicole Gounalis. The original Italian appeared online at Storie.

Elena Ferrante’s face in the Anglophone world today is that of her translator, Ann Goldstein. New Yorker editor, and guardian of its prestige, on March 30 of this year she returned as an ex-student to Bennington College—she left in 1971—where she met with a small group of students before taking part in an evening at a lecture hall on campus. BARBARA ALFANO, who has taught Italian literature at the Vermont college for years, gathered the testimony of Goldstein’s almost superhuman determination.



What demon possessed you, at age 37, to learn Italian in order to read the Divine Comedy in the original and, furthermore, all of it, not just the Inferno, like most students in the United States?  Was it the itch to discover this other world within the words of a person who recounted having been there, or were you overtaken by this mania because someone had explained to you that Dante is the father of the Italian language and, as the head copy-editor at the New Yorker, perhaps tired of embellishing others’ stories, eliminating useless adverbs and changing comma placements, you decided to learn a new language from its source?

Because you are also an editor of the magazine, a guardian of its prestige, and you know that certain things are either done well or not at all, and therefore to learn Italian you should start with Dante. Was it like that? That you were taken midway upon the difficult and industrious New Yorker journey?

This is what I wanted to ask Ann Goldstein (b. 1950), as soon as I met her, but we were seated in a classroom in Bennington, Vermont, in front of fifteen students eager to ask her questions about Elena Ferrante and Ferrante’s novels, all of which Ann has translated. She was as shy and surprised as the students to find herself at her alma mater, to which she hadn’t returned since 1971, the year she graduated with a degree in literature. She was seated between me and Ben Anastas,1 who had invited her and with whom I was teaching a course entitled “In Search of Elena Ferrante.”

When I finally had the opportunity to ask her why Dante, she responded that it was a pressing desire. After having read the Divine Comedy in English, “I wanted to read it in Italian and I convinced some colleagues that they, too, should learn Italian and read Dante.”

In that way, from 1987 onward, they studied Italian at the New Yorkerwith a private instructor once a week for many years, a habit that Ann and her colleagues have taken up again recently. In that first period of time, they started to read Dante after only a year of lessons. That same year, Goldstein, who has worked at the New Yorker since 1974, was simultaneously made head copy-editor and promoted to editor.



Before arriving at the New Yorker, Ann had studied comparative philology—Greek and Latin—for a brief period at University College, London. She also learned a little Sanskrit, but didn’t even think of translation until, in 1992, an Italian friend shared with her a short essay by Aldo Buzzi, “Chekov in Sondrio.” It was subsequently published in translation in the New Yorker; she said that she had tried her hand at translating it. In truth, she did much more than that: she won the PEN-Renato Poggioli Prize for translation for the volume of Buzzi’s collected writings, Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels (1996).

Since then, Ann Goldstein works on translation in all the free time she has left over from her job at the New Yorker—weekends, vacations, spare hours, and long nights. She has translated, in random order, Alessandro Baricco, Giacomo Leopardi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alessandro Piperno, Antonio Monda, Serena Vitale, Roberto Calasso, Giovanni Paolo II, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Primo Levi. She was the editor for the monumental work that is the translation of Levi’s three-volume complete works. She coordinated the work of nine translators and translated various pieces herself. It was a massive effort that took years, published in 2015, and it brought the translator, herself of Jewish origin, closer to the story of the Holocaust in Italy.

Fame, however, arrived thanks to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy. In September 2012, My Brilliant Friend was released in the U.S. and in January 2013, James Wood published a long article in the New Yorkerdedicated to Ferrante’s work. This marked the beginning of great international success, which quickly became ‘Ferrante fever’ with the publication of the final book in the cycle. The Story of the Lost Child is a candidate for the Man Booker International Prize, the prestigious prize that honors novels in translation.

Ann has translated all of Ferrante’s work, including the interviews. In November of this year La frantumaglia will also be released in translation, the book that complies more than twenty years’ worth of letters and various writings by Ferrante on the subject of her work. Ann’s relationship with Ferrante’s novels had already begun in 2005. As in the case of the Divine Comedy, the culprit was a book: The Days of Abandonment (2002), which enthralled her. Even though Europa Editions, sister press of the Italian E/O, had asked various translators to send only a short sample of work that they would like to do, Ann sent the publisher the entire novel. “I wanted that job!” she confessed to the students at Bennington with an intense look and a big grin, revealing the enthusiasm and professional rigor that have made her a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (1995, 2006), the American Academy in Rome (1993-4, 2002, and the Guggenheim Foundation (2008).



While the students spoke with her, I glanced at the translation drafts she had brought with her to the class and that she had spread out on the desk for me with a restrained gesture, saying in a soft voice, “If these can be of use…” The answer I was looking for was there, in those drafts. There were no doodles, no confused notes in the margins, no long underlinings, no armies of question marks. There was nothing to indicate the translator’s torment, as I had imagined it. Instead, there were interruptions—words substituted for others, here and there, that lit up the sentences like a Christmas tree. A magic. A short pencil mark got rid of a word judged imperfect and the new word, written beautifully above, illuminated the entire sentence, gave it color, transformed it. In this way, I understood.

I understood that for an artisan of language, impassioned and meticulous, reading the Divine Comedy in English would have given her a great itch. Dante’s work doesn’t permit translation, only great betrayal, even when it’s done well. It would be an itch that only recourse to the original could scratch. The only cure for translation, it seems, is to become its practitioner.



Ann Goldstein is not merely the face of Elena Ferrante, as by now many overseas newspapers and magazines are calling her. Ann Goldstein, like every translator, creates what the author cannot: their work in another language. Translators don’t just lend their native language to a work. The organizers of the Man Booker International want this to be clear to everyone—the prize, starting this year, will be shared equally between the author and the translator.

Ann, congratulations on the nomination for the Man Booker International Prize. Have you and Elena Ferrante congratulated each other? Has she written to you?

Thank you. No, but we don’t have a relationship where we write each other regularly.

Has your relationship with her changed over the years?

Not much. In the beginning she was more reserved and when I had doubts I asked the editors at e/o, the Italian press. They would pass the questions on to Ferrante. I don’t know exactly why but I’ve kept up this ‘long distance’ relationship, so to speak, even though I imagine that now I could easily stay in touch with her through email.

The organizers of the Man Booker International decided, from this year on, to award translators alongside writers. Boyd Tonkin, president of the jury, spoke of first-class translations. Are they finally recognizing the translators’ role as equal to that of the author?

It’s a gratifying development, this recognition of the translator. I wouldn’t say that the translator is equal to the author, but obviously it’s important in the sense that a book wouldn’t exist in another language without the translator. Certainly all translators have had this experience of a review, where long passages from the book are quoted without reference to them, or to the fact that these passages have been translated from another language.

Elena Ferrante has said she is also a translator.2What effect does it have that the writer whose works you’ve been translating for more than ten years shares, in some sense, your profession and that she has complete trust in you (her words)? Is it common that one translator has such absolute trust in another?

I think that she recognizes and understands the difficulties of translation and therefore appreciates the work. I believe she reads English and has read the translations, at least of the first books.

Has it ever occurred to you to write a novel?

No. I leave that task to others.

The first novel of Ferrante’s that you translated was The Days of Abandonment and you did it all at once. Tell me about this experience.  

It was an intense experience, as you can imagine. It’s book without any breathing room, in a certain sense, and this is communicated to the reader, who can feel suffocated. We’re in the mind of the protagonist and it is not a calm or easy place. Often I wanted to escape but it wasn’t possible, or only for a brief period. As the translator, I couldn’t escape, I had to go back to reading, to reviewing, to reflecting on the words, the sentences, and how to render them in English.

I won’t ask you if the translator is a traitor because you don’t like to betray: you stay as close as possible to the original text. Even so, with Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle, you had to come to terms with an Italian that was purposefully rooted in the essence of Naples over time, with expressions like tamarro, scarparo, mappina, sciacquati in bocca. Did you have to betray, with a heavy heart? What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in translating the cycle?

I tried to find words or expressions that were not exactly slang, but more colloquial. I think that the most difficult thing was maintaining the intensity of the sentences, or the passages or paragraphs, and, at the same time, constructing fine English syntax. In The Story of the Lost Child,where Elena talks about the history of Naples, there are very complex descriptions, because it’s not only about places and a history unknown to Americans or Anglophones, but part of the setting.

Staying on the theme of faithfulness, I saw your name, for the very first time, as the translator of Alessandro Baricco’s City, and that work seemed perfect to me, very clean. It should be said that that book lends itself well to a fluid version in English, very close to the original. In fact, my first impression of City was that it was a novel suffused with America, even in its language. Baricco’s language, in other words, was inspired by America as a place.3 Did you notice that too? Are some styles easier to translate than others?

What you say is true, although I hadn’t thought about it in such explicit terms. City, a book I love—maybe I told you!—and which hasn’t received the attention it deserves, has a pretty American underpinning and for that reason it’s recognizable and, maybe, translatable. But every style has its own difficulties, even one that seems clear.

Before you, Italian literature in the Anglophone world bore the great signature of William Weaver, who passed away in 2013. Did you ever speak with him, even if not, ideally, in person, on your journey as a translator?

Yes, I knew him a bit—I knew some of his friends. We talked a bit, but when I had only just begun to translate. I visited him, once, in Italy—he had a house in Monte San Savino, near Arezzo, and there was a beautiful new room where he worked, which he called ‘the Eco chamber’, because it was built with the proceeds from The Name of the Rose. It’s a great story, but it indicates another difficulty translators face: the paltry compensation. Maybe the new Booker system will shed a little light on this problem.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing the translation of Something Written by Emanuele Trevi, a mix of autobiography/memoir and literary criticism of Pasolini’s Petrolio. It’s a fascinating text for me, having translated Petrolio, but it might not be for those who aren’t interested in Pasolini.

If it were up to you to propose a contemporary Italian author to translate, who would you choose and why?

I would like to translate Gli anni impossibili by Romano Bilenchi: it’s a series of three long short stories and I translated one of them, “The Chill,” but I think all three are necessary to render the power of Bilenchi’s writing. I wanted to translate Pasolini’s novels, but now I’ve done it, or at least I translated one of them4 (not including Petrolio, which I translated years ago).

Do you have a beloved book in the drawer that sooner or later you’ll translate?

Only in the sense that I’m behind on various projects.

She’s not running behind for her flight, however, which will take her to New Zealand to talk about Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi at the Auckland Writers Festival, ‘Down Under,’ as they say. She says goodbye to me from the airport in San Francisco. “That makes two of us,” I respond to her later, when she is already in the other hemisphere. “Tomorrow it’s my turn to talk about Ferrante.”


Further Reading

Aldo Buzzi, Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels, Random House, 1996.

Romano Bilenchi, The Chill, Europa Editions, 2009.

Ann Goldstein, “Remembering Updike,” The New Yorker, March 20, 2009.

Pia Pera, Lo’s Diary, Foxrock Books, 1999.

The Complete Works of Primo Levi, ed. Ann Goldstein, Liveright, 2015.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio, Pantheon Books, 1997.

Elena Ferrante, “Our Fetid City,” The New Yorker, January 15, 2008.

James Wood, “Women on the Verge: The Fiction of Elena Ferrante,” The New Yorker, January 21, 2013.


Elena Ferrante’s Books Published in Translation by Europa Editions

The Days of Abandonment (2005)

Troubling Love (2006)

The Lost Daughter (2008)

My Brilliant Friend (2012)

The Story of a New Name (2013)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014)

The Story of the Lost Child (2015)

  • 1.Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (2002, New York Times Notable Book), An Underachiever’s Diary (1998) and the memoir Too Good to Be True (2012). He teaches Literature at Bennington College. His writing has appeared in Harpers, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications.
  • 2.“Ecco perché mi nascondo” [“This is why I’m in hiding”], La Repubblica, October 26, 2003.
  • 3.Translator’s note: the Italian phrase used by Alfano (“sciacquare i panni in Hudson”) is a play on Alessandro Manzoni’s (1785-1873) famous quote describing his rewriting of the novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi). Manzoni famously re-wrote his masterpiece into Tuscan Italian, even though he was from Milan and the novel takes place in Lombardy.
  • 4.Ragazzi di Vita, The Street Kids (2016).

The Times

‘I am not the face of Elena Ferrante’

The Italian’s translator Ann Goldstein fears the novelist’s ‘outing’ will stop her from writing

Ann Goldstein says her day job at The New Yorker “supports my translation habit”DAVID BEBBER FOR THE TIMES

I am telling Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, how interesting I found Frantumaglia — a “jumble of fragments” — the collection of the Italian writer’s correspondence and interviews that will be published in English for the first time next month.

“Really?” asks Goldstein, elegant in olive cashmere V-neck, black trousers and a necklace of colourful beads. “I just read this Michiko Kakutani review in The[New York] Times. She lambasted it!”

Ferrante is the Italian author of Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment and the four books known in Britain as the Neapolitan Quartet. Goldstein has translated them all, as…

Kill Your Darlings

Conversation with Ann Goldstein


Gerard Elson speaks to Ann Goldstein, translator of Elena Ferrante’s hugely successful Neapolitan novel series, about learning Italian later in life, and the difficulties and rewards of interpreting literature for English-speaking readers.

KYD-INT04-Interview alpha

For the past 20 years, Elena Ferrante – the nom de plume of an anonymous Italian writer – has offered up vicious examinations of the intense, often vituperative, relationships that mushroom in patriarchy’s shadow.

Throughout all her work, but most famously in the suite of recent novels known collectively as the Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante turns her gimlet eye to splits between classes, sexes, generations and nationalities, and to female relationships in all their multiplicity: mother-daughter, mentor-student, friends. To find the furnace behind Ferrante’s fiction, one might look to Simone de Beauvoir, who in The Second Sex asked damningly, ‘How can a human being in a woman’s situation attain fulfilment?’

Ann Goldstein has been translating Ferrante’s attempts to answer this question for the past decade, vitriol thrillingly intact.

While the Anglosphere first encountered Ferrante via Goldstein’s translation of her second novel, The Days of Abandonment (2002, English translation 2005), ‘Ferrante fever’, as a popular hashtag puts it, is a more recent phenomenon. The Neapolitan novels, concerning the tempestuous friendship between Elena and Lila – who meet as girls in the gritty streets of postwar Naples and maintain an erratic yet deeply symbiotic, lifelong bond, until the latter vanishes – have captured the popular imagination in a way that makes the fuss surrounding the series’ closest analogue in contemporary letters, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle, seem wanner than a midwinter Scandinavian sky.

Originally published in Italian from 2011 to 2014, Goldstein’s translation of the series’ first book, My Brilliant Friend, came in 2012, continuing with The Story of a New Name in 2013 and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in 2014, before concluding in 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child. Ferrante fever is now at boiling point: Time named the novelist among its ‘100 Most Influential People’ in April of this year, acknowledging the impact she has made on the English-speaking consciousness.

Due to Ferrante’s insistence on preserving her anonymity, Goldstein has become the public face of the Neapolitan novels’ success, and is now more in demand than ever as a translator: at the time of writing, at least two new Goldstein translations will be published later this year.

A recent, noteworthy project has been In Other Words (2016), the first Italian-language book by the Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, moved to Rome in 2012 with her husband and children, and summarily renounced writing in English. In Other Words documents her efforts to pledge herself to the Italian language. (At one point, she refers to English as ‘a boyfriend I’d tired of, someone I’d left years earlier. He no longer appeals to me.’)

In its English publication, Lahiri’s original text is printed opposite Goldstein’s translation. The etymologically inclined can double their pleasure by cross-referencing the two women’s sentences, puzzling out certain words’ mutual Latin roots. Last year also saw the release of the three-volume Complete Works of Primo Levi, a project overseen by Goldstein, who contributed three new translations to the epic collection.

When not doubled over translations, Goldstein serves as head of the New Yorker’s copy department. We speak via Skype ahead of her visit to Australia.

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Reading in translation


As Diana Thow and I were planning a session on Italian literature for the American Literary Translators Association conference, I happened to see translator of Elena Ferrante fame and New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein at the Turin Salone del Libro, where she was presenting a book of essays on Primo Levi and translation. [i] Goldstein, since she was part of the inspiration behind our panel on the state of Italian literature in English, graciously agreed to grant me this brief interview. The aim of the conference panel was to think about what breaks into the Anglophone market successfully, and what gets published yet neglected, or simply remains woefully unavailable. And of course, as Ann Goldstein has been behind one of the greatest recent successes in translated fiction—Elena Ferrante—I was interested in her take on why Ferrante has made such a splash. At the same time, Ferrante has perhaps unduly overshadowed Goldstein’s other translational achievements: there is the monumental Complete Works of Primo Levi, which she edited and co-translated, the uproarious satires of Amara Lakhous, the lyrical novels of Alessandro Baricco, not to mention works worthy of greater attention like Milena Agus’s beautiful From the Land of the Moon, Alessandro Piperno’s Persecution, Serena Vitale’s Pushkin’s Button, even a thriller—Giampiero Rigosi’sNight Bus—all books worth a read. In short, Goldstein has quietly emerged as one of the preeminent translators of Italian literature, and whether you admire or find fault with her style, she has reignited debates on translation technique for critics and readers alike. Here are her thoughts on the Ferrante phenomenon, and a little bit about the business and craft of translation.

Jamie Richards

Ann GoldsteinWriter Elena Ferrante has had enormous success in the US. To what do you attribute Ferrante Fever? Is it thematic, an effect of style, great marketing, word of mouth…?

I think that, ultimately, it’s a product of the books themselves, in particular the Neapolitan tetralogy. Ferrante’s exploration of the sixty-year friendship between two girls, and her forensic (as some have called it) examination, or excavation (a word she herself uses), of relationships and emotions is tremendous and moving. Readers become immersed in the lives of Elena and Lila, get to know their families, their friends, experience what happens to them—marriages, births, deaths, loves, hatreds—over these many decades. In the background—and sometimes pushing into the foreground—is the history of Italy from the postwar period to the present.  We really know these people and their struggles; we see them grow up and change and age and, in some cases, die, as we do with people in our own life. It’s not so much that we identify with the details of these lives—most of us did not grow up amid the violence and poverty of an outlying neighborhood of Naples, Elena and Lila’s childhood world. But I think we do identify with, and recognize, the people themselves and their relationships with each other and with life, and, perhaps, with their desire to find order or sense in their lives. Joanna Biggs in the London Review of Books starts her review: “Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people – mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone?” and so on.

Also, the plots are gripping, page-turning: Ferrante tells a good story. “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar….Plot is what excites me and my readers.”

The “fever” seems to have spread first through word of mouth. In particular, writers discovered Ferrante and writers are good at getting people to read what they recommend. Then just after My Brilliant Friend came out, there was the James Wood review in The New Yorker, and that seems to have been decisive in bringing Ferrante attention and readers.

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Los Angeles Review of Books

Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 4: Ann Goldstein on “Ferrante Fever”

Liesl Schillinger interviews Ann Goldstein

ANN GOLDSTEIN WAS THE FIRST live, bona fide translator I ever encountered, but when we met, at The New Yorker magazine nearly 30 years ago, she had not yet become a translator; in fact, she had only been studying Italian for two years. She was a copyeditor then (a job she still holds today). In 1992, she did her first Italian translation almost by accident, to help a friend. The piece — a chapter from a collection of essays by Aldo Buzzi — was published inThe New Yorker in 1992. She has not stopped translating since, producing dozens of books while running The New Yorker’s copy desk. In the last five years, Ms. Goldstein has achieved a nearly unheard of distinction, becoming a household word for her English translations of Elena Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan Quartet — four enthralling, politically and emotionally charged novels about the intertwined ambitions and fates of two women who met as girls in Naples, after World War II. More than a million and a half copies of Goldstein’s English versions of the Ferrante series have sold in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Early this year, The Wall Street Journal published a profile of her, headlined: “Ann Goldstein: A Star Italian Translator.” It was a funny apotheosis for this understated woman, who is never one to toot her own tromba. In our conversation, the two of us retraced her journey to translation, and revisited some of the literary milestones she has encountered along the way.


LIESL SCHILLINGER: You really caught a wave with Elena Ferrante. Michael Hofmann told me he felt guilty for getting more attention than some translators, because he is also known for his poetry and criticism. What is it like to have received so much attention for your translations, so quickly?

ANN GOLDSTEIN: It’s completely weird; it’s so unusual. But, I think it should be good for all translators, not just me. I think it brings attention to the fact that books have translators, and that seems to me like a good thing.

Were you surprised by “Ferrante Fever,” as it’s called?

Needless to say, I was a little surprised — not surprised because I don’t think the books are good, which I do — but because many good books don’t get a lot of attention. With the Ferrante books, it’s not even the attention, it’s that they have so many readers.

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I don’t become the writer, I inhabit the writer’s words: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator

Ferrante has brought her the fame which the Italian-to-English translator’s body of work should have earned her even earlier.

I don’t become the writer, I inhabit the writer’s words: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator

Ann Goldstein is probably the only translator in the world whose fame comes anywhere close to the writer being translated. That’s because she is the brilliant and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a collection of four books that have not only taken Europe, the UK, the US, and now the rest of the world, by storm, but are also about to be adapted for television.

Of course, Goldstein is a hugely accomplished translator, having translated, besides Ferrante, authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Primo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alessandro Baricco. She heads the copy department atThe New Yorker and is a recipient of PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Visiting Australia as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she spoke about her passion for the Italian language, the challenges of translation, and the surprising international recognition Ferrante’s books have brought her. Excerpts from the interview:

Has it been tough to deal with all the attention and publicity that is usually given to the writer and not the translator? The Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child] by Ferrante, whose identity is a closely guarded secret, has sold over a million copies and counting.
Yes [laughs]. Of course. I didn’t plan to be the voice of Ferrante or to be the speaker for the books. That came as a kind of a surprise to me.

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Tony’s Reading List

An Evening with Ann Goldstein

It isn’t often that I venture into the city from my home in the far-flung outer suburbs of Melbourne, and it’s even rarer for me to do so on a school night.  However, the visit of a world-famous translator is something I hate to miss out on, so last Wednesday saw me make the trek to see Ann Goldstein, best-known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s work, in conversation at Federation Square.  Sadly, though, it wasn’t all it might have been – let me explain why…

While the English translations of Elena Ferrante’s books are published by Europa Editions in the UK and US, here in Australia we’ve had new editions (with much better covers…) from local press Text PublishingThe Neapolitan Novels have been a great success, bringing a lot of interest in Ferrante and her translator, hence Goldstein’s trip Down Under (with this event organised by Melbourne’sWheeler Centre).  Wednesday evening saw a large crowd attracted to the Deakin Edge lecture hall – I was near the front, so I’m not sure exactly how many people were present, but it would have been in the high hundreds for sure.

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The New Yorker



The Italian novelists Elena Ferrante and Nicola Lagioia discuss writing and “the elusive subject that is women” in Ferrante’s forthcoming book “Frantumaglia.”

The following is an excerpt from an e-mail correspondence, which took place last year, between the Italian novelists Elena Ferrante and Nicola Lagioia, whose English-language début, “Ferocity,” will be published in the spring of 2017, by Europa Editions. The full correspondence will appear in Elena Ferrante’s “Frantumaglia: An Author’s Journey Told Through Letters, Interviews, and Occasional Writings,” translated by Ann Goldstein, to be published in November.

Nicola Lagioia: One of the most powerful aspects of “My Brilliant Friend” is the way in which the interdependence of the characters is rendered. Each time Lila vanishes from the horizon of Elena’s experiences, she nevertheless continues to act in her friend, and presumably the opposite is also true. Reading your novel is comforting because this is what occurs in real life. The people who are truly important to us, the people we’ve allowed to break us open inside, do not stop questioning us, obsessing us, pursuing us, and, if necessary, guiding us, even if they die, or grow distant, or if we’ve quarrelled. This interdependence extends throughout the entire world of the two friends—to Nino, Rino, Stefano Carracci, the Solara brothers, Carmela, Enzo Scanno, Gigliola, Marisa, Pasquale, Antonio, even Professor Galiani. To escape is impossible; they constantly reappear in one another’s lives. When you think of what such bonds are made of, they might seem to be a curse—but shouldn’t they also be considered a blessing? In some cases I confess I have envied these characters.

Elena Ferrante: Where do I start? In my childhood, my adolescence. Some of the poor Neapolitan neighborhoods were crowded, yes, and rowdy. To gather oneself, so to speak, was physically impossible. One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.

Of course, today I have small quiet places where I can gather myself—but I still feel that the idea is slightly ridiculous. I’ve described women at moments when they are absolutely alone. But in their heads there is never silence or even focus. The most absolute solitude, at least in my experience, and not just narrative experience, is always, to paraphrase the title of a very good book by Hrabal, too loud. To the writer, no person is ever definitively relegated to silence, even if we long ago broke off relations with that person—out of anger, by chance, or because the person died. I can’t even think without the voices of others, much less write. And I’m not talking only about relatives, female friends, enemies. I’m talking about others, men and women who today exist only in images: in television or newspaper images, sometimes heartrending, sometimes offensive in their opulence. And I’m talking about the past, about what we generally call tradition; I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected. And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others. And this crowd is certainly a blessing for literature.

Maybe capturing the fluidity of existences on the page means avoiding stories that are too rigidly defined. The long story of Elena Greco is marked everywhere by instability, maybe even more than the stories of Delia, Olga, or Leda, the protagonists of my earlier books. What Elena lays out on the page, at first with apparent assurance, becomes increasingly less controlled. In “My Brilliant Friend,” I wanted everything to take shape and then lose its shape. In her effort to tell the story of Lila, Elena is compelled to tell the story of all the others, including herself, encounters and clashes that leave very varied impressions. The others, in the broad meaning of the term, as I said, continually collide with us and we collide with them. Our singularity, our uniqueness, our identity are continually dying. When at the end of a long day we feel shattered, “in pieces,” there’s nothing more literally true.

Lagioia: If it’s true, as I’ve read in more than one article, that “My Brilliant Friend” presents no possibilities for transcendence (at least in the way transcendence is rendered in most twentieth-century literature), what do we make of Lina’s smarginature, her episodes of dissolving boundaries—that is to say, those moments when the world goes off its axis, appearing in its unbearable nakedness, a chaotic and shapeless mass, “a sticky, jumbled reality” without meaning? They are revelatory instants, and the revelations are consistently terrible.

Ferrante: I’m always surprised when someone points out as a flaw the fact that my stories contain no possibility of transcendence. Here I’d like to move on to a statement of principle: since the age of fifteen, I haven’t believed in the kingdom of any God, in Heaven or on Earth—in fact, wherever you place it, it seems dangerous to me. On the other hand, I share the opinion that most of the concepts we work with have a theological origin. Theology helps us understand the origins of the dregs we even now resort to. As for the rest, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m comforted by stories that emerge through horror to a turning point, stories in which someone is redeemed as confirmation that peace and happiness are possible, or that one can return to a private or public Eden. But I tried to write a story like that, long ago, and I discovered that I didn’t believe in it. I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us, as in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and Clarice Lispector’s extraordinary “Passion According to G.H.” You don’t go beyond that; you have to take a step back and, to survive, reënter some good fiction. I don’t believe, however, that every fiction we orchestrate is good. I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions. Human beings are extremely violent animals, and the violence they are always ready to use in order to impose their own eternal, salvific life vest, while shattering those of others, is frightening.

Lagioia: For Lila and Elena, getting an education is the only really worthy way to escape the condition of inferiority. Despite the many troubles they confront in the course of their lives, rarely do the two friends lose faith in the power of learning. What do you think of Italy today, full of university graduates who are adrift? It’s true that some of these youths don’t have the almost desperate relationship with education that Lila and Elena do, and that for the next generations (for their daughters Dede and Elsa, for example) there might be other tools with which to cross the shadow line. And yet, all in all, education strikes me as a means of emancipation unlike any other.

Ferrante: First of all, I would not reduce education to a mere tool of emancipation. Education has been considered essential mainly to social mobility. In post-Second World War Italy, education cemented old hierarchies, but it also allowed for a modest assimilation of the deserving, so that to some extent those who remained at the bottom could say to themselves, “I ended up here because I didn’t want to study.” Lenù’s story demonstrates this use of education for upward mobility. But there are also signs of dysfunction: some characters study and still they stumble. In other words, there was an ideology of education that no longer functions today. Its failure has become obvious: the directionless graduates are dramatic evidence that the long crisis in the legitimization of social hierarchy based on the credentials of an education has come to a head.

But the story also demonstrates another way of understanding education: for Lila, deprived of the opportunity to complete her education—at a time when this was crucial especially for women, and for poor women—and projecting onto Lenuccia her own ambitions of sociocultural ascent, education becomes the manifestation of a permanent anxiety about intelligence, a necessity imposed by the relentlessly chaotic circumstances of life, a tool of daily struggle. While Lena, in short, is the tormented omega of the old system, Lila embodies the crisis and, in a certain sense, a possible future. How will the crisis be resolved in our own tumultuous world? I’m not sure—we’ll have to see. Will the contradictions of the educational system become increasingly evident, signalling its decline? Will education be refined and accessible without any connection to the ways we earn a living? Will we have more cultured diligence and less intelligence? Let’s say that in general I’m captivated by those who produce ideas, rather than by those who comment on them. I’d feel better in a world of imaginative creators of grand ideas—even if this seems to me, admittedly, a formidable goal.

Lagioia: Someone who is truly rooted in life doesn’t write novels. The relationship between Elena and Lila seems to me archetypal, in the sense that many friendships and rivalries function according to this dynamic: it is, if you will, the dynamic that binds artists to their muses, although the muse in this particular case is anything but ethereal. On the contrary, she is earthly to the core, committed to confronting life, to clashing with it wholeheartedly. It’s Lila who feels the things of the world in a more visceral way. And yet, for that very reason, she cannot bear witness in the way Elena can. Although Elena fears that sooner or later her friend will manage to write a marvellous book, a book capable of objectively restoring the balance between them, that can’t happen.

That is one of the paradoxes that seem to bind Elena to Lila. How can one try to undo it, or live with it? To bear witness on behalf of someone who will not do so herself might seem either a generous act or one of enormous arrogance. Or again—and this is the most painful hypothesis—it becomes a weapon to render the people we love harmless, even if it means that we crush them. What relationship do you have with writing from this point of view?

Ferrante: Writing is an act of pride. I’ve always known that, and so for a long time I hid the fact that I was writing, especially from the people I loved. I was afraid of exposing myself and of others’ disapproval. Jane Austen organized herself so that she could immediately hide her pages if someone came into the room where she had taken refuge. It’s a reaction I’m familiar with: you’re ashamed of your presumptuousness, because there is nothing that can justify it, not even success. However I state it, the fact remains that I have assumed the right to imprison others in what I seem to see, feel, think, imagine, and know. Is it a task? A mission? A vocation? Who called on me, who assigned me that task and that mission? A god? A people? A social class? A party? The culture industry? The lowly, the disinherited, the lost causes? The entire human race? The elusive subject that is women? My mother, my female friends? No—by now it’s blindingly obvious that I alone authorized myself. I assigned myself, for motives that are obscure even to me, the job of describing what I know of my era, that is—in its simplest form—what happened under my nose, that is to say the life, the dreams, the fantasies, the languages of a narrow group of people and events, within a restricted space, in an unimportant language made even less important by the use I make of it. One tends to say: let’s not overdo it, it’s only a job. It may be that things are like that now. Things change, and the verbal vestments in which we wrap them change. But pride remains. I remain, I who spend a large part of my day reading and writing, because I have assigned myself the task of describing. And I cannot soothe myself by saying: it’s a job. When did I ever consider writing a job? I’ve never written to earn a living. I write to bear witness to the fact that I have lived and have sought a yardstick for myself and for others, since those others couldn’t or didn’t know how or didn’t want to do it. What is this if not pride? And what does it imply if not “You don’t know how to see me and see yourselves, but I see myself and I see you”? No, there is no way around it. The only possibility is to learn to put the “I” into perspective, to pour it into the work and then go away, to consider writing something that separates from us the moment it’s complete: one of the many collateral effects of an active life.