Mysterious novelist chronicles femininity, independence

by Dina Kleiner / Beacon Staff • March 23, 2017

Elena Ferrante, a contemporary Italian author who’s gained a large following in the United States, is most widely known for two things: her highly-acclaimed Neapolitan series and her identity, which was a mystery until last September.

“Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym. The writer is fiercely private—she doesn’t do publicity, she doesn’t do any promotion, and she doesn’t do book tours. She rarely does interviews, and when she does, they are via email. She’s blown up in the literary world, yet remains largely unknown to the average person. She’s also one of the best writers I have ever read in my entire life.

The Italian author has said in written interviews that she would stop publishing books if her real identity were revealed. Fans of Ferrante didn’t want to know her real name. They aggressively defended her anonymity with a kind of protectiveness that’s rare for fans of anything in this era, an age in which people believe they’re entitled to the private lives of artists. In September, an Italian investigative journalist named Claudio Gatti outed Elena Ferrante’s alleged real identity, igniting anger from fans and drawing a surge of new readers to her novels.

As intriguing as the writer’s anonymity is—especially in a publishing era where press tours are the main way publishers market books—the secrecy surrounding Ferrante’s identity isn’t what attracts readers to her work. Ferrante is regarded by many as one of the best contemporary writers, earning stunning reviews from critics across the board and attracting fervid fans who’ve developed a cult-like obsession with her work.

The positive reception of Ferrante’s work in the United States took form far before the controversy surrounding the exposure of her identity. It’s rare to see so many critics uniformly praise Ferrante in such an effusive manner. They don’t review her work so much as they seem to personally urge readers to read it. Her Neapolitan series has been called a tour de force and a modern masterpiece.

Ferrante isn’t marketed as a feminist writer, but her books undoubtedly are just by virtue of her unabashed honesty about sex, adolescence, violence, and the body. Her illustration of the female psyche is so spot-on that it makes other works that aim to achieve similar depictions appear shallow and half-hearted, as though they only touch the surface of what reality feels like when compared to Ferrante’s words.

The New Yorker wrote, “Ferrante’s polished language belies the rawness of her imagery.” But don’t be fooled—her prose is layered with emotion, rage, and grotesqueness. Underneath the timid nature of many of Ferrante’s protagonists lies an anger that slowly reveals itself within narration, an indignation at the world that wells up and bursts like a tsunami crashing against a lifetime of subtle oppression. Critic John Freeman wrote, “Ferrante’s fictions are fierce, unsentimental glimpses at the way a woman is constantly under threat, her identity submerged in marriage, eclipsed by motherhood, mythologized by desire. Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”

Those looking to immerse themselves in the “Elena Ferrante experience” should start with her Neapolitan series. The first of the four-book series is My Brilliant Friend, which illustrates the childhood of two young girls growing up in a poor town outside Naples, Italy.  I have never read anything that so accurately portrays what it feels like to go through puberty as a young girl. The series grows with its characters, exploring adulthood, classism, abuse, and independence with Ferrante’s signature emotion and underlying rage.

People who want to read Ferrante but don’t want to make a four-book commitment (although I highly recommend starting the series, even if you’re not committed to finishing it) should start with one of her slimmer novels, Troubled Love or Days of Abandonment. These novels are less epic in nature than the Neapolitan books—they feel like an intense dive into the psyche of women at critical points in their lives rather than a sprawling bildungsroman. These novels are angrier. They are jam-packed with quiet fury, brimming with an outrage that makes itself known instead of moving surreptitiously beneath the surface.

The cover of Ferrante’s novels are uncool at best and tacky at worst—they look like the kind of books that grandmothers buy at airports. I think it’s because no one expected Ferrante to become such a huge hit—they didn’t think they should bother putting money toward a more modern cover design, the kind of cover meant for books targeted for best-seller lists. They didn’t know what a success Ferrante would be. They didn’t know that an anonymous, elusive Italian writer could gather a fan base so dedicated it defends her privacy, that she would write one of the best depictions of female friendship and womanhood of all time, that her words would hold so much power and truth that they cause women across the globe to look up from their novels and exclaim to themselves: “That’s exactly what it feels like.”