The writer who goes by the name of Elena Ferrante has, over the past 25 years, produced seven novels. The most famous of them—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child—form a quartet. Published in rapid succession between 2011 and 2014, these novels are set in a slum neighborhood in Naples that is marked by poverty, ignorance, and violence and yet constitutes, for its inhabitants, a world whose borders none may traverse. No amount of hardscrabble life on its mean streets is sufficient to wean anyone—and I mean anyone—of loyalty to the neighborhood’s addictive brutishness. If, on occasion, one or two of its denizens manage to escape, they are (symbolically speaking) likely to lose a limb tearing free, thereby remaining as maimed as those being left behind.
The Neapolitan quartet is celebrated for the compelling way it narrates a friendship between two women, Lila and Elena, that extends over half a century. But the real protagonist of the books is, as it might be in a premodernist work of fiction, the neighborhood itself, richly evoked through a cast of supporting characters that seems somewhat archetypal. There is Pasquale, the communist; Michele, the criminal; Nino, the hustler; Elena’s avaricious sister; Lila’s lowlife brother; along with a variety of husbands, wives, children, and lovers, all crowding the page. Many of these characters are so one-dimensional it often seems as though they are members of an extended family united by a stultifying world that none can leave and where none can mature as an individual.
Then there are the two women, whose long friendship is the narrative heart of the work. As children, Elena was smart, pretty, and docile, whereas Lila was beautiful, brilliant, and fearless. When it came time to continue on to a higher level of education, it was Elena who got to go to college, while Lila was deprived of further schooling. Whereupon some psychological twist of cynical rage blossoms in Lila that makes her imagine herself committing an act of vengeance—she’ll show them, she’ll make nothing of her life—when, at the age of 16, she marries the grocer’s son, a weak and violent man, thus binding herself to the neighborhood for life.
The defiant pride with which Lila makes a virtue out of necessity impresses, even frightens, those around her. “Nothing and no one seemed to reduce her,” the grown-up Elena muses decades later. “Rather, even if over the years she became as stupid and intractable as anyone, the qualities that we had attributed to her would remain intact, maybe they would be magnified. Even when we hated her we ended by respecting her and fearing her.” In time, we will see that Lila’s strength derives from her mocking embodiment of all their unfulfilled lives.
The narrator, Elena, on the other hand, does feel reduced, even though she is the one who apparently got away. She has lived for long periods of time out in the larger world, has married, had children, become noted for her writing. Yet she remains as uncertain of herself as she was the day she went off to college. Elena returns home repeatedly because she continues to suffer horribly “in situations where approval suddenly vanished” and she “lost confidence, felt dragged down to my origins…felt I was a woman who would have been better off not opening her mouth.” Elena’s crippling insecurity is the obverse of Lila’s noisy need to intimidate. In the course of four novels neither of their failings advances nor retreats very much.
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This is the world in which Ferrante has submerged herself, writing as though from deep inside an interiority of her own that is sealed into the very thing she is trying to make sense of. Herein lies the power, and the limitation, of her writing. She flings her raw material down on the page with such force the reader encounters it almost as unmediated testament: not a metaphor in sight.
Often described as works of modern feminism simply because the major figures are women living in contemporary times, the Neapolitan quartet, it seems to me, more resembles the neorealism of the 1930s and ’40s as its vigor derives from an overriding sense of social determinism, not individuation. The narrative is wondrously plot-driven; there’s not a moment when something is not happening to complicate the lives of the major figures—life in a slum is anything but static—and it moves forward at a pace guaranteed to hold the reader’s mesmerized attention. At the same time, the writing never puts us inside either of its protagonists.
The novels track the lives of Lila and Elena from childhood through late middle age, giving us a vivid account, as the years progress, of where they live, whom they marry or sleep with, the children they have, the work they do, the lover they share; but that account does not include reflectiveness. No matter how many pages are expended on the narration—the prose is nothing if not luxuriant—somehow it all feels summary. True, we follow Elena and Lila through every twist and turn of their long years together and apart—especially those of Elena, whose moves, first as a student, then as a writer, resemble a pastiche of women being influenced by feminism during the ’70s. But here, too, the thoughts in her head being churned up by the turbulent activity of those heady times have neither the depth nor the insight to ensure change. When Elena leaves her husband, it is only to fly into the arms of another weak and unreliable man, who transports her right back to Naples and eventually to her old neighborhood itself.
What gives these novels their prominent place on the literary map at this moment is the intensity of Elena Ferrante’s writing: in and of itself a force of nature. With or without permission, the writing sucks the reader into its orbit, and there one remains to the end. It’s a remarkable performance, one that speaks directly to a moment in Western culture avid for naked, memoirish storytelling, and it has made her world-famous.
One other thing has made Ferrante famous: her decision to remain anonymous. For decades, no one has known who she is; that is, no one has put a face or a believable name to the writer called Elena Ferrante. Her publishers have distributed no identifying biographical information, and she herself has taken part in no kind of publicity. She has never appeared at any of the usual venues—festivals, symposia, talk shows—at which writers hawk their work, nor has she appeared to accept the prizes she has won.
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This decision of Ferrante to remain anonymous—a decision successfully honored for more than two decades now—has driven media journalists around the world into a frenzy. It is they—not her readers—who have obsessed over her identity; they who have caused its so-called mystery to generate as much if not more interest in her person than in her work. When granted an interview (via e-mail), they spend most of it asking her about her “absence” from the public scene—even though she calmly keeps reminding them that she is not at all absent, she is fully there in her work.
As of this writing, Ferrante’s stalkers seem to have outed her. There is no confirmation as yet, but it would seem that she is actually a Rome-based translator whose background in no way conforms to that of the narrator of the Neapolitan novels; if she is who she’s suspected of being, her mother was a refugee from the Holocaust, she was raised in Rome, and her family was middle class.
What is interesting here is that, in the many interviews she has granted over the years not only to Italian journalists but to journalists from all over Europe as well as South and North America, Ferrante has given the strong impression that she actually does share the narrator’s history: that she does come from working-class Naples, that she does know her cast of characters intimately, that she does hold the academic degree that got her out. I say it’s interesting because in these interviews she quite blandly says that she has no objection to lying to the interviewer if the lie will preserve her anonymity—and clearly she has done just that, with the ongoing good wishes of her readers, among whom I count myself. Now that I know that what she says, or rather implies, about herself in these interviews is not literally true, I can honestly say: It doesn’t matter one bit. What matters is that, whoever she is, when she sits down to write she wholly inhabits the narrating persona she has chosen for the tale that she has come to tell.
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Frantumaglia, the book Ferrante has published this year, is a collection of letters, essays, and interviews written or given by her over the past 25 years. In one of her interviews, she explains the meaning of the title: “My mother left me a word in her dialect.… She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments…. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain.”
This is a fanciful explanation for the title of this book, not only because we now know that in all probability Ferrante’s real mother did not speak an Italian dialect, but also because the book is not at all a jumble of fragments. It is in fact unified by two subjects that dominate the collection: her insistence on preserving her anonymity as a private person, and her intentness on explaining herself as a writer—that is, on identifying the source of the emotional energy behind the work.
In a 1998 letter to her publisher that is included in Frantumaglia, Ferrante writes:
The stories that you tell…are merely tools with which you circle around the elusive, unnamed, shapeless thing that belongs to you alone, and which [is] the real reason that you spend so much of your life sitting at a table tapping away, filling pages. The question in every story is the same: is this the right story to seize what lies silent in my depths, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and gives them life?
Yes, she confirms in a 2002 interview, she does write so that her books will be read. “But while I’m writing that isn’t what counts; what counts is finding the energy to dig deeply into the story I’m telling.” That is, the fundamental story—every writer has one—the one Ferrante keeps trying with every book to get right.
It’s amusing to see that the following year a Danish interviewer coolly asked her if, in her opinion, it was important to be “capable of communicating strong feelings in order to sell books.” Her answer, quietly dignified, was that it is her intention to put a world on the page, not strong feelings as such. But the Dane was on to something, as Ferrante’s stock-in-trade is precisely that: feeling that is not only strong but at times deranged, as it is in her early novel The Days of Abandonment. In that 2002 interview, in an attempt to clarify the story being told in this novel, she observes that the need for love is not only “the central experience of our existence,” it is the particular form of torment that we are most loath to give up: “However foolish it may seem we feel truly alive only when we have an arrow in our side that we drag around night and day, everywhere we go…. [It] motivates all our actions.” This, I believe, is the essential Ferrante speaking.
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Ferrante really loves answering the questions that are put to her via e-mail; clearly, they give her an opportunity to continue writing. In the spring of 2003, she gave a 70-page answer to a set of questions put to her by the editors of an Italian monthly magazine. The questions were wide-ranging and had to do with guilt and innocence in her characters, the original betrayal by fathers and mothers in anthropological and psychoanalytic terms, whether Naples and Turin are metaphors for the sickened or sickening female body, the ritualistic use of clothes and makeup. Ferrante’s answers are impressive for the coherence and expansiveness with which she takes up each question.
And all this time, over a period of decades, the question of the mystery of her identity has never been absent from a single interview, even though her answer has repeatedly been the same: I haven’t made a mystery of my absence from the media, you have. My words belong to you, but I do not. In 2005, after being asked bluntly why she wouldn’t come out into the open, she said, “I come out into the open every time I publish something, even just the answers in this interview of yours. It seems to me sufficient.” In 2006, now fairly exasperated, she said, “[This is] a banal media game…. You have focused the whole interview on the theme of my identity…. There’s been nothing that touched on [the book], its subject, or its writing.” And again, in 2015, “Why are you not asking me questions about the writing itself, why always and only about this famous absence of mine?”
One interview, with her Italian editors, reprinted in The Paris Review in 2015, did allow her to speak about what is genuinely close to her heart:
The most urgent questions for a writer may seem to be: what experiences do I feel able to narrate?… The more pressing questions are: what is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know?… Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.
One can feel on the page the love in her voice for what she speaks of.
Whatever the discrepancy between Ferrante’s actual upbringing and that of her characters, there can be no doubt about the central role that the women and men of Naples play in her writing imagination. For her, they are an emblematic population: alive with humor and cunning and, paradoxically, the employment of survival skills that, generation after generation, condemns them to endless repetition of their constricted lives. Of the women, she says: “They are cheerful and foul-mouthed, silent victims, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve them even though the men crush and torture them…incapable of admitting, even to themselves, that, with that, they drive them to become even more brutish.”
The inbred acquiescence of the women to the historic viciousness at the heart of their lives is all Ferrante needs to pull Naples into focus. An interviewer observes that the city seems always to have been her bête noir— “a violent city of sudden quarrels, beatings, a vulgar city, where the people are rowdy, self-aggrandizing, quick to small cruelties”—and asks if she still feels that way about it. “Yes,” Ferrante replies flatly, “nothing has changed except the fact” that now all Italy is beginning to seem like Naples to her.
Ferrante’s work is not about women or friendship or abandonment: It is, rather, about a sense of the deep-down rawness of life itself—which runs like an electrical current beneath the prose—and it is responsible for the thousands of pages of writing she has sent out into a world of readers hungry to feel alive to their own perilous condition. No mystery there.