The Economist

Italian fiction

Ties that bind

A four-volume feminist novel from Naples has become an unlikely global hit

Aug 29th 2015

The Story of the Lost Child. By Elena Ferrante. Translation by Ann Goldstein. Europa; 464 pages; $18 and £11.99.

NOVELS become literary blockbusters for many reasons. Some are created by mountains of marketing cash, some by media saturation. “Fifty Shades of Grey” and Harper Lee’s long-lost work, “Go Set a Watchman”, both fit this mould. Others are fuelled by something quite different, and their success is impossible to predict. In recent years “The Neapolitan Novels”, four volumes by an anonymous Italian author calling herself Elena Ferrante, have become a fictional juggernaut that not even the author’s English-language publishers, Europa Editions, saw coming.

Starting with “My Brilliant Friend”, which came out in Italy in 2011, the books focus on the lifelong attachment of two women from a tough Neapolitan neighbourhood. In America, where Ms Ferrante had a modest following, not much happened until 2013, when the translation was written up by James Wood, chief critic of the New Yorker. (Ann Goldstein, the translator, is an editor at the magazine.) By the time the fourth and final instalment, “The Story of the Lost Child”, appears in English next month, the saga will have sold well over 1m copies, with 27 foreign translations to come. A Twitter hashtag coined by an impassioned reader says it all: #FerranteFever is raging.

Italy produces few international bestsellers, and Ms Ferrante’s unexpected stardom has caused a stir at home. Some critics have made the sour point that Italians are unable to recognise one of their own. Others have speculated about the author’s identity, even claiming that work this good could only have been written by a man. The truth is that this serial novel of 1,700 pages is highly unusual. The saga is both comfortingly traditional and radically fresh; it gives readers not just what they want, but something more that they didn’t even know they craved. The story, which unfolds over 60 years, is high drama set in an exceptionally vivid world. The two girls, Lila and Elena, inhabit an operatic universe of violence, jealousy, love triangles and political upheaval; they are unforgettable characters in the grand tradition of the 19th-century novel.

Yet it is Ms Ferrante’s ability to serve up scorching emotional truth that gives the books their raw power. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. Many critics have singled out Ms Ferrante’s visceral truth-telling. Elena, the narrator, is unsparing in her descriptions of the seductive, malicious Lila, and her own deepest, most unpalatable feelings. “We have used each other up,” she muses in the final book, recalling how she’d once wished that Lila would fall ill and die. “I felt that I had been invented by men, colonised by their imagination,” she later observes. The effect of such admissions is electric: relief at the breaking of taboos, recognition of one’s own darkest thoughts. Readers have had equally intense responses. Claire Messud, an American novelist (and Mr Wood’s wife), says “my private relationship with [the author], so intense and so true, is one that nobody else can fully know.” Yet only a few critics have explicitly acknowledged the real subject of this soul-baring. “The Neapolitan Novels” are about what Elena, the narrator, calls “the unforeseen subject, the woman, I”; they are deeply, insistently feminist books.

This is a great novel of female friendship, one that reveals admiration and envy, competition and self-sabotage, emotions that many women experience but do not discuss. Of course the complex, combustible sisterhood is hardly new in Western literature, but here it gains renewed strength, celebrating female survival instead of the suicides or marital redemption of the traditional Bildungsroman by male writers like Tolstoy or Flaubert. Misogyny is not experienced in the same way everywhere, yet Ms Ferrante articulates a female rage about it that to many readers—male and female alike—feels universal.

The books’ route to success has been equally unconventional. Though effusively praised in highbrow literary circles, they did not immediately gain a wide audience, becoming a cult favourite slowly, through word of mouth. Ms Ferrante’s anonymity became the story; innumerable articles speculating on her identity have proved an unintentional marketing bonanza. But while the focus on the author helped to spread her fame, it did little to explain what gives her work enduring value.

From a literary perspective, Ms Ferrante’s approach is masterly. She uses the melodramatic tropes of soap opera to tell a cracking good story, all the while smuggling in piercing observations, like a file baked in a cake. Her work is reminiscent of a Neapolitan theatrical tradition called sceneggiata, a kind of over-the-top musical melodrama about honour, betrayal and crime. Through this fusion of high and low art, Ms Ferrante emerges as a 21st-century Dickens, with readers clamouring for the next instalment at the shops.

The novel may have struck a chord for other reasons, too. Readers are bored by the sameness of Anglo-American fiction, with its middle-class focus and its insistence on dialogue and scene. Above all, the story has what Marina Warner, a British writer and academic, calls “hallucinatory vividness”, a density of detail that makes it burn. Ms Ferrante’s fiction reminds some of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s explicitly autobiographical “My Struggle”. But no one really knows how autobiographical Ms Ferrante’s work might be. Nor, frankly, should they care. The shelter of anonymity has allowed these exceptional books to emerge; Ms Ferrante has said she would no longer publish if she were to be unmasked. One can only hope that, having spared herself the book tours and the tweeting, she is using that shelter to write something new. Millions of readers will be waiting.

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