In her secret life: who exactly is Elena Ferrante?

As Ferrante’s writing became conspicuous, so did her anonymity. Speculation gathered, not just about her identity but even her sex.

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My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay 
Elena Ferrante; translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 336-480pp, £11.99

When Ann Goldstein’s admirable translation of Elena Ferrante’s novel Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay appeared a few weeks ago, the publishers held a celebration in a small London bookshop. There was wine, pizza and a panel discussion on the theme: “Who is Elena Ferrante?”

The question is one that preoccupies Ferrante’s readership and it has come to haunt the author in ways that are presumably the reverse of what she intended when she decided that personal anonymity was the best way to serve her fiction. Before the publication of her first novel, Troubling Love, in 1991, Ferrante wrote to her Italian publisher, “I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love . . . that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.”

It should – but it often isn’t. Success breeds curiosity. Ferrante’s debut won the prestigious Elsa Morante Prize; that novel and her second, Days of Abandonment, were made into feature films. As Ferrante’s writing became conspicuous, so did her anonymity. Speculation gathered, not just about her identity but even her sex. It was suggested that her fiction might be the pseudonymous work of another writer – Domenico Starnone, Goffredo Fofi and Fabrizia Ramondino were all mentioned – or even a collective of authors.

In a rare interview conducted in writing, Ferrante coolly repudiated the “banal media game” of guessing her identity. “An insignificant name, mine, is associated with names of greater substance,” she observed. “The opposite never happens. It would not occur to any newspaper to fill a page with the hypothesis that my books were written by an old, retired archivist or a young, newly hired bank clerk.”

The sparse personal details that Ferrante has revealed or confirmed are these: she grew up in Naples and studied Classics. She is, or has been, a writer, a translator, a teacher and a mother. She admires Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare and Chekhov; while writing, she keeps to hand “books of encouragement” by Federigo Tozzi, Alba de Céspedes and Elsa Morante.

In Fragments, a slender collection of Ferrante’s non-fiction writing,  some brief paragraphs of personal reminiscence appear. She recalls a kitten that her father gave her and later abandoned on the road to Secondigliano because he was exasperated by its mewing and she remembers the sensation of skin against skin as her mother held her hand as they walked along an uneven, dangerous street: “I felt her fear and was afraid.”

These fragments share with her fiction the quality of glinting, immanent unease that is her distinguishing stylistic trait. Ferrante mentions an anecdote about Chekhov who, asked by a journalist about the origins of his fiction, picked up an ashtray and said, “You see this? Come by tomorrow and I’ll give you a story entitled ‘The Ashtray’.” The inference is clear: Ferrante’s creativity, like Chekhov’s, finds nourishment in the banal details of quotidian existence. Like Irène Némirovsky or Marguerite Duras, Ferrante appears to draw on her own experience when writing about the female condition. But she insists on the power of fiction to transcend autobiography. To conclude that her novels are veiled memoir, or essays in auto-fiction, is to strain the relationship
between reader and writer.

Ferrante’s first three novels, each depicting a woman at a moment of emotional crisis, appeared at long intervals – a decade separated Troubling Love from Days of Abandonment and it was a further four years before the The Lost Daughter in 2006. After a gap of another five years, the three novels of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series came in swift succession. My Brilliant Friend was published in Italian in 2011; The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay followed at yearly intervals.

Framed as the autobiographical recollections of a writer, Elena Greco, the novels describe the relationship between Elena (Lenù), the daughter of a porter at the Naples city hall, and her childhood friend Raffaella Cerullo, a shoemaker’s daughter known as Lina by everyone except Lenù, who calls her Lila. The bond between them endures for more than 60 years, surviving physical separation, marriage and motherhood, violent reverses of fortune and sharply divergent destinies. But the series begins with a sudden hiatus in the friendship. At the age of 66, Lila has vanished.

Elena is not surprised: “It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means . . .” But as days pass without a word from Lila, Elena’s sense of rancour grows: “She wanted not only to disappear herself . . . but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. I was really angry. We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”

The tense mixture of love and resentment and the jealous claiming of the right to their joint narrative have characterised their relationship from its beginning. Lenù and Lila grow up in a poverty-stricken district of postwar Naples, where everyday discourse is in dialect, Italian is almost a foreign language and the neighbourhood’s population of small tradesmen – bakers, carpenters, grocers – is terrorised by the Solara family and the ferocious Don Achille Carracci, whom Lenù thinks of as “the ogre of fairy tales”.

It is on Don Achille’s staircase that the friendship between the two girls is forged. They have been playing with their dolls (a potent symbol in Ferrante’s work) when Lila deliberately drops Lenù’s doll through the grating of Don Achille’s cellar. As Lenù reluctantly follows her friend to the ogre’s apartment to ask for the doll’s return, “Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.”

The scene of Lila and Lenù venturing together into the dark unknown – Lila, the instigator, ahead and Lenù behind, observing – is a pivotal image in the novels. But the balance of their relationship is never fixed. At first it appears that Lila is the dominant partner – the “brilliant friend”. She is clever, wilful, beautiful, irresistibly charismatic and utterly fearless. When the neighbourhood hoodlum insults Lenù, Lila pulls a shoe­maker’s knife and threatens to cut his throat.

At school she excels, reading voraciously: she loves Little Women and is fascinated to learn that Louisa May Alcott made money from writing. She writes a ten-page story, which their teacher ignores because she is angry that Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to continue her education.

Elena’s parents contrive to send her to middle school and it is there that her life and Lila’s begin to diverge. While Lenù, the diligent student, proceeds to high school and then to university in Pisa and precocious celebrity as the author of a book about her childhood,  Lila remains trapped within the narrow margins of the neighbourhood.

Reluctantly married to Don Achille’s son Stefano, she proves brilliantly talented at everything she attempts. She is an inspired businesswoman but her marriage is a disaster. A part of her longs to escape the neighbourhood but her forays into Elena’s new-found middle-class milieu are humiliating.

As a teenager, Lila has her first episode of what she calls “dissolving boundaries”: a nauseating and terrifying impression that “the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared”. As the narrative unfolds, the sense of dissolution becomes steadily more ominous. The novels chronicle the dissolving margins of childhood promise, of love, of the female body, invaded by male desire and pregnancy; of a deliquescent Naples, putrid with corruption and violence; and, as the characters become involved in the violent political activism of Italy in the 1970s, of society itself.

Writing seems to offer a way of fixing and systematising inchoate experience. But it is also the realm in which Lenù and Lila are most fiercely in conflict. The second book of the series, The Story of a New Name, opens with an extraordinary confession: “In the spring of 1966, Lila, in a state of great agitation, entrusted to me a metal box that contained eight notebooks. She said that she could no longer keep them at home, she was afraid her husband might read them.”

Lenù swears not to open the box; as soon as she is alone, she begins to read. “The notebooks exuded the force of seduction that Lila had given off since she was a child.” They contain ruthlessly accurate descriptions of the neighbourhood and its inhabitants, including Lenù.

Unable to bear the sensation of “Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now that I had a life outside of Naples”, Lena places the box on the parapet of the Solferino bridge and pushes it “a little at a time, until it fell into the river, as if it were her, Lila in person, plummeting, with her thoughts, words, the malice with which she struck back at anyone, the way she appropriated me, as she did every person or thing or event or thought that touched her”.

Decades later, Lila agrees to read Lenù’s second book and then, in a storm of tears, tells Lenù, “It’s an ugly, ugly book and the one before it was, too.” “Only much later,” Lenù writes, “did it occur to me that the sobs had allowed her to destroy my work without appeal . . . Certainly Lila reinforced her role as a mirror of my inabilities.”

Their concluding skirmish over narrative comes during their final meeting, in the winter of 2005. The two old women have been for a walk and Lenù confesses that she is thinking of writing about the neighbourhood. Lila threatens that if Lenù writes about her, “I’ll come look in your computer, I’ll read your files, I’ll erase them.” “I can protect myself,” protests Lenù. “Not from me,” Lila replies. It is the last thing she says before her disappearance: a valediction as malediction that Lenù indignantly defies.

Proustian in ambition and scope, written in a limpid, sensual prose whose complex nuances and indelible images are beautifully rendered by Ann Goldstein’s translation, Ferrante’s three Neapolitan novels depict the emotional and physical lives of women, their power and weakness, with a supple precision that has led critics to invoke the écriture féminine of Hélène Cixous.

Ferrante addresses the question of women’s depiction in fiction directly in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Exasperated by the feminist groups she attends with her sister-in-law, Elena begins work on a book about the imagining of women by men, “from the first and second biblical creations to Defoe-Flanders, Flaubert-Bovary, Tolstoy-Karenina, La dernière mode, Rose Sélavy, and beyond . . . I discovered everywhere female automatons created by men.” In a characteristic twist, she gives the manuscript to an old friend, Nino, and it becomes the catalyst of an affair in which Lenù’s own female experience is reimagined.

Ferrante describes herself in Fragments as “slightly interested in feminism”. When a journalist suggested in 2002 that hers was “female writing”, she replied that when she was young, “It seemed to me that all the great writers were male, and hence it was necessary to write like a real man. Later . . . I espoused the theory that every little fragment that revealed a feminine literary specificity should be studied and put to use. Some time ago, however . . . [I] began to write without asking myself what I should be: masculine, feminine, neuter.”

The retreat from categories, labels and an identifiable persona returns us to the matter of Ferrante’s distaste for publicity. The Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard admitted in an interview that the fame he sought through his writing was a Faustian bargain: “I have actually sold my soul to the devil. That’s the way it feels. Because in addition I get such a huge reward.”

Ferrante, by contrast, makes an austere but resonant distinction between “the true reader” who is, she insists, not to be confused with “the fan”. “The true reader,” she concludes, “searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood . . . but the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.” 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article appears in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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