Summer Reading: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series
Last summer we posted a list of great summer reads for those of us who want to dream of being in Italy even if we aren’t actually there. This summer I’m also dreaming of Italy and have found my outlet in one particular elusive Italian writer.
Of the multitude of things I’m obsessed with related to Italy, my latest is the novelist known by the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. A friend recently recommended Ferrante’s books to me, but included a disclaimer about not being sure her writing is for everyone. To be honest, it took some pages for me to get sucked into the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitian series of novels, My Brilliant Friend. But once I was hooked, the line and sinker had me as well. I loved it, and am gleefully biting at the hook of the second book right now.
Ferrante, despite having her true identity unknown, has made quite a name for herself as an author. Her first book was published in 1992, and her works have been translated from Italian into English and many other languages since the early 2000s. Her 4-part series known as the Neapolitan Novels are her best known books, the last of which earned a spot on The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2015.
In the series, precocious protagonists Elena and Lila grow up amongst the machismo and violence of a mid-20th century lower-class neighborhood of Naples. They yearn for education, respect and a higher place in society. They go through various stages of life and complex relationships (not the least complex of which is theirs). The first book follows the girls from about ages 7 through 16, and is deftly written from an age-appropriate mindset that shifts older as the girls age. I can hardly wait to see how the perspective matures along with the characters through the remaining 3 books.
I enjoy how Ferrante handles the mundane aspects of everyday life in a rough Italian neighborhood. Without hitting the reader over the head with any messages, she makes us feel how savage this world is and how few choices these people have, especially girls. I read one review of the series that described Ferrante as a “subtle subversive.” I love it – that might be my favorite type of person.
Over the last few years as Ferrante’s career gained momentum, there has been much speculation about her identity. Most believe she grew up in Naples but lived for periods of time outside of Italy, and has a classics / literature degree. She may be a mother, and she may currently be divorced. These things are hinted to in her writings and interviews. At least two specific women and one man have been believed to be her, but they have denied the accreditation. One thing is clear – there is much controversy about who she is. Even the discussion as to whether it’s appropriate to seek her identity is rife with controversy.
In 2016, Time magazine called Ferrante one of the 100 most influential people. Why does she write anonymously? She has stated that “books, when written, have no need for authors.” From this kind of statement we might infer that she wants the stories to stand on their own, without the temptation to compare them to the life and personality of the author. I’d also imagine that some authors just prefer to avoid fame – perhaps she’s an introvert. Or perhaps there’s a more complicated inner conflict going on. I admire people who are truly modest, honestly self-deprecating. I think that type of person is rare. In an interview that appeared in The New Yorker in 2016, Ferrante laments the grotesque act of hubris that is writing— “However I state it, the fact remains that I have assumed the right to imprison others in what I seem to see, feel, think, imagine, and know. Is it a task? A mission? A vocation? Who called on me, who assigned me that task and that mission? A god? A people? A social class? A party? The culture industry? The lowly, the disinherited, the lost causes? The entire human race? The elusive subject that is women? My mother, my female friends? No—by now it’s blindingly obvious that I alone authorized myself. I assigned myself, for motives that are obscure even to me, the job of describing what I know of my era.”
What a fascinating woman. I simultaneously want to join the quest for her identity and ferociously protect her anonymity. The reality is that I’ll do neither. I’ll just pick up her books and enjoy.