Mystery of the author merely adds to a rollercoaster of love and loss in violent Naples, says Jane Shilling
Elena Ferrante is perhaps the most famous and certainly the least known of living Italian novelists. Her stories are read across the world but by remaining anonymous she has contrived to avoid the celebrity status that bedevils successful writers.
The known facts about Ferrante — she grew up in Naples; Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym — are so sparse that critics have speculated that her works are by different hands. Her refusal to interpose herself between her novels and their public lends the experience of reading them a singular, exhilarating purity.
Between 1992 and 2007 Ferrante published four novels and a literary memoir. But it was with the English publication in 2011 of My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan tetralogy, that her fame became global. These volumes chronicle the intense and volatile friendship between two women from the Neapolitan ghetto, Lenu and Lila.
Their story begins in 1950, when they are both six, and continues until Lila’s disappearance, some 60 years later. While Lenu finds a way out of the ghetto — she becomes a successful novelist, Lila marries at 16 and stays in Naples, her talent apparently destined to remain unfulfilled.
A strong sense of chiaroscuro characterises the tetralogy: the thuggish violence of the Neapolitan stradone, the political activism of the “years of lead”, the corruption at every level of society.
A particular darkness overshadows this final volume, in which the lineaments of Lenu and Lila’s lives harden as they age. Lila’s glitter of rage and Lenu’s intellectual exhilaration become haunted by a bitter sense of futility. Ferrante has said that she is happy to embrace the devices of genre fiction but the readability of these novels floats upon layers of psychological complexity. The dark heart of friendship has rarely been anatomised in more pitiless detail.