The world has gone mad for Elena Ferrante, the mysterious Italian writer who penned the saga My Brilliant Friend. Here are 5 reasons for her success and 5 reasons to learn to love her too.
She is the publishing phenomenon of the moment, and not only in Italy. The latest literary creation by Elena Ferrante tells the story of friendship between two women, an “everyday saga” formed by four long episodes in four books (My Brilliant Friend, Story of a New name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child) published between 2011 and 2014 that have become a real international literary event. Translated into many languages, critics and journalists have enthused about her all over the world, The Guardian and Time have written about her, James Franco has posted photos of her books on Instagram, Twitter has #FerranteFever since this summer and a TV series is in production that will surely not go unnoticed. While it goes without saying that the main cause of Elena Ferrante’s success is her writing and her extraordinary skill as a storyteller, this explosion of approval and admirers is also based on other aspects linked to the (absent) figure of Ferrante and the aura of mystery surrounding her and her books. Here are 5 reasons why it is worth knowing this enigmatic author, who was mentioned in the journal Foreign Policy in 2014 on the list of the hundred most read thinkers in the world.
1. THE IDENTITY GAME: THE WRITER-CHARACTER
Elena Ferrante is only a pseudonym, we don’t even know whether she is really a woman (some people speculate that the name is actually hiding a group of writers). She has never revealed her identity and this has created a kind of small contemporary myth, with subsequent hypotheses and a tidal wave of suggestions and conjectures. She has never appeared in public, but her books give clues of a possible identity. She is probably from Naples; she is probably about 70 years old, as she describes the 1960s and political phenomena of that historic period with great realism, from the perspective of someone who saw it with their own eyes; she is probably a mother; she seemingly belongs to the world of publishing (she could be an editor or translator) given her detailed knowledge of its dynamics. She has also written accounting for her intention to maintain extreme privacy as a desire to stay out of the media circus of the covers, presentations and interviews. She wrote “I believe that books do need their authors. If they have something to tell, will sooner or later they will find readers.” In a time when everything is performed, those who remove themselves from the stage stand out and Elena Ferrante has become a permanent fixture of the cultural scene precisely by staying outside it. Whether she planned it or not, her choice has transformed Elena Ferrante from a simple author to a character in her own right, an emblematic existence.
2. AN EPISODIC MASTERPIECE
An interesting aspect of the success of Elena Ferrante’s books is their serialised format, supported by a plot that attracts the reader and never lets them go again, as often happens today with storytelling through episodes. As they develop with twists and surprise appearances by characters, they renew the urge to keep going and move on to the next book. The use of this episodic structure is very interesting for a non-genre novel. Series (of books or television) most commonly arise fantasy, epic, erotic or detective stories, but My Brilliant Friend is a classic novel that fits into the great tradition of Italian fiction (many have likened her to two icons of Italian fiction, Elsa Morante and Anna Maria Ortese, in terms of style and theme). Right now the episodic structure is especially popular among the public, which seems to be excited by long stories that develop over time, and it seems that Ferrante’s books will also be adapted for a TV series using this episodic format.
3. SOUTH ITALY (WITHOUT RHETORIC)
Her success abroad is probably linked to the Italian character of Ferrante’s stories, which are set in Southern Italy, especially in Naples. Elena Ferrante paints a vast fresco of southern Italy, a portrait made with honesty and sincerity. She avoids judgment and fully identifies with the dynamics portrayed, even when they are uncomfortable, ambiguous and painful. Her stories are steeped in the passionate, contradictory and violent soul of Naples, especially that of its most crowded and difficult districts. Her tales vibrate with the emotional vivacity of the characters typical of the people of South Italy, where family and social structures weigh on the individual, influencing and often hindering them.
4. STORIES OF WOMEN, FAMILY AND FRIENDSHIP
Elena Ferrante’s books are successful because they are centred around human relationships, relationships portrayed with fierce loyalty, psychological depth and a great sense of realism. In particular, My Brilliant Friend is the great, long history of a turbulent, complicated friendship between two children, Lila and Lenù, who become women during the course of the novels. But it is also the story of several families: the Cerullo and Greco families, and then the Solaras and the Airotas, the relationships that animate them, and the small tensions and big dramas that run through them. It is the story of a traumatic childhood and attempts at emancipation, the story of two girls who grow up in the street stifled by poor households in an extreme cultural and social context, surrounded by fundamental friendships and protected but also swallowed up by the working class neighbourhood that surrounds them.
5. A QUALITY POP SOUL
A key reason behind Ferrante’s success is her interest in daily life and stories of ordinary people, in which Ferrante glimpses profoundly exciting emotional and psychological dynamics. The setting of her books also contributes to this sense of closeness to life. The working class districts are manifested in the novels with their fierce and ruthless language, the vitality of the characters and their traditions, and also the weight of conditioning and social despair are a central aspect of Elena Ferrante’s world. The lives depicted in her books are ordinary but permeated with strong psychological realism and some subtle elements of mystery, with irrational aspects related especially to the almost supernatural charm of Lila, one of the two protagonists. This pop vocation is also found in the language used by the writer, which is clear and direct, offering a powerful form of communication that goes to the heart of the characters and their intrigues.
At the moment the saga of My Brilliant Friend has ended with the fourth and final book, The Story of the Lost Child but who knows, given her global success, the mysterious Elena Ferrante may still decide to add new episodes to the story of Lila and Lenù.