Elena Ferrante is being acclaimed as a great novelist around the world — but nobody knows who she is, and she’s determined to keep it that way
by Louis Wise – Published: 8 March 2015
In 1991, Sandro and Sandra Ferri, who run a small independent publishing house in Rome, received a manuscript from a new writer. It was called Troubling Love, and it was indeed troubling: a visceral account of a woman’s love-hate relationship with her mother. Equally unsettling, though, was the letter that followed it. The writer, going by the name of Elena Ferrante, explained that she would not be identified. No interviews. No book signings. No pictures on the inside sleeve. Invisible as the author wished to seem, however, the letter was already cut through with a sure and fierce tone. “I’ve already done enough for this long story: I’ve written it,” it said. “If the book is worth something, it should be enough.”
This must have seemed quite naive. Since when, in a cut-throat industry, has a book being “worth something” ever been “enough”? Yet Ferrante has been proved right. With the publication of her so- called Neapolitan Novels, a tetralogy she started releasing in 2011, she has established herself as the foremost modern writer in Italy — and the world. The saga of a novelist, also, tantalisingly, called Elena, and her friendship, since childhood, with the mercurial Lila, the four novels (the first is My Brilliant Friend; the last is out here in September) have become the publishing story of the decade.
Ferrante is that rare gem, a novelist with impeccable literary credentials who also spins a good yarn — and who sells. Zadie Smith loves her; so do the writers Alice Sebold and Jhumpa Lahiri, and The New Yorker’s influential critic James Wood. In America, she has sold 250,000 copies of the Neapolitan Novels, and the figure is growing by the day, just as it is over here. All in all, not bad for someone who will never, ever do Oprah’s Book Club.
We are no closer to knowing who Ferrante is. Even in the frenzy of the digital era, when artists are constantly encouraged to sell themselves as much as their work, the novelist has stuck to her guns. I’m using female pronouns, but we have no guarantee that Ferrante is a she. She has dropped tantalising nuggets of information, but these are vague and rare. The only people to know who she is, bar the Ferris and their daughter Eva, are her family — whoever they are. So — five, six, seven people? And the Ferris say she is determined to keep the secret.
“She knows her writing depends on this,” Sandro Ferri explains over the phone from Rome, while Sandra — Ferrante’s editor — listens in. “It’s difficult, this thing of the privacy, but she’s facing it courageously.” Even in 1991, the Ferris understood the strength of her voice, and the strength of her stance. Breaking the secret would “really endanger her writing”, he insists.
The literary circuit is rife with chatter about who Ferrante may be. One source told me she was the wife of a “very important” cultural figure in Italy; another the wife of an MEP. Others have argued that it’s the writer Domenico Starnone, a fellow Neapolitan, who uses the Ferrante pen name to write devastating incursions into the female psyche. (“It will follow me until I die,” he grumbled recently. He even had to write in one of his books: “I AM NOT FERRANTE.”) Others think the Ferrante oeuvre is a collection by various writers. In an interview out this month, Ferrante is wonderfully scornful about this.
“The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be, and they don’t have the technical tools, or more simply the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works,” she complains in The Paris Review. This interview is full of deep insights about Ferrante’s writing and intriguing little clues about her life. It also confirms that she does a great line in haughty. “I don’t think the reader should be indulged as a consumer, because he isn’t one. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature,” she decrees.
Ferrante is anonymous, then, but not exactly silent. She communicates sporadically via the Ferris. It was they who conducted the new interview, her most in-depth yet. The Paris Review emailed over the questions, then the Ferris met Ferrante at a seaside hotel in Naples, where they discussed the queries, scoffed clams and presumably had a good laugh at all the hacks trying to suss out their ginormous secret. Ferrante explained again why she chose seclusion. “Back then, I was frightened at the thought of having to come out of my shell. Timidity prevailed. Later, I came to feel hostility towards the media, which doesn’t pay attention to books themselves and values a work according to the author’s reputation.”
On our recurrent need for a “writer-hero”, she is scathing: “It’s not the book that counts, but the aura of its author.” Now, plenty of artists have moaned about this — whole critical movements have been based on that contention. But Ferrante represents a rare example of someone acting on it to its full and logical extent.
It is heartening that it’s simply quality, rather than marketing, that is triumphing here. (And yes, the mystery could seem like a sales ploy — but if it is, they waited an awfully long time to action it.) “What I first noticed was writers talking about [her books] among themselves, and that has been key to the initial momentum,” says Michael Reynolds, who publishes her novels in America. Ferrante writes “writerly” books, he explains, but they somehow also have mass appeal. “The books are successful because of that — we didn’t spend half a million dollars on a billboard campaign.” The popularity of the novels is also, of course, a cheering and rare success story for an independent publishing house.
So why are the books so good? Ferrante’s works are intense, to say the least: each one has a first-person narrator, a woman, who relays some trauma that has lingered throughout her life. Her long, unspooling sentences don’t dawdle or stall, but propel you through nonstop narrative and interrogation. “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader,” Ferrante tells The Paris Review, “not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.”
The Neapolitan suite saw her widen her scope definitively, using all the tricks of thrillers, romance and social realism, of reportage and memoir-writing, embedding them all in an epic worthy of the great 19th-century novels. They are powered by the friendship between Elena (Greco, the character/narrator) and Lila, her friend and occasional foe. Ferrante admits that it’s autobiographical, but to what extent, we may never know. The women’s diverging routes, in an Italy grappling with the second half of the 20th century, provide ample grist for the dramatic mill. It’s also a frank and in-depth analysis of female love and friendship.
“I’ve been trying to think of another work of fiction that so completely renders a relationship between two women,” Reynolds says. He recalls an argument that Leopold Bloom was once the only character in literature you could probably put in therapy, since we knew so much about him. Elena Greco, he thinks, is a new candidate. “There are other examples of that completeness, but I’m not sure there is a portrait of a woman — or of the dynamics of the relationship between women.”
The novels also manage to be a state-of-the-nation look at Italy past and present. As Elena Greco educates herself, leaving the poverty of postwar Naples behind to find success further north, we glimpse a country subjected to a series of seismic changes. “It’s absolutely correct to speak about the book as a portrait of Italy,” Sandro Ferri says. “She was aware of this when she was writing it.” This deep scrutiny has touched a nerve in a country still struggling to find peace. “We feel this problem very much in Italy, and we ask ourselves every day, ‘How have we become so corrupted?’!”
In this sense, it’s not unlike the great Italian film saga of the early Noughties, The Best of Youth, although, as David Russell, lecturer in English at King’s College London, points out, it stands apart by doing something only literature can do. “The novels explore brilliantly what you might call the psychology of influence, the question of how other people make us who we are, and how we make them — actually make other people up — in our minds. Ferrante’s language is so good at handling it because, like Jane Austen’s, it is both remarkably clear and endlessly subtle.”
The fourth and final instalment, The Story of the Lost Child, is out in Italy. It has been nominated for the country’s biggest literature prize, the Strega, but not without controversy — shortlisted authors are meant to do the rounds and, naturally, Ferrante disdains it. Meanwhile, we can expect the translated version in September. The woman valiantly producing it is the American Ann Goldstein. Even she has no clue who Ferrante is, and this despite translating six of her novels. Does she feel she has a relationship with her?
“I do!” she says down the phone from New York. “Well, sort of. I mean… maybe not?” Like most sleuths, she believes Ferrante is a middle-aged woman, “from Naples, married, has children, has worked in some literary thing”. Beyond that, she says she doesn’t know, and “weirdly, I don’t speculate too much”. For now, she is still working on the latest book and is nowhere near finished. Has she been enjoying herself?
“I mean, ‘enjoy’ seems a pale word, but, yes, I’m involved,” she says with a wry laugh. She’s not the only one.
Elena Ferrante’s novels are published by Europa Editions; The Paris Review is available now in the App Store, and in print next Sunday