I have always believed, in a world obsessed with images of writers, with ‘knowing’, ‘seeing’ and ‘encountering’ writers, particularly female writers, that Ferrante was a last testament to the anonymous power of the written word. With the unmasking of her identity, that last pillar has fallen. But in another sense, it strikes me that what we talk about when we talk about Elena Ferrante has always, rather tiresomely, been her identity. Her anonymity – perhaps because of its femaleness – has always been a space into we have projected our speculations. Often, these speculations have been irrelevant, or even offensive. Might she be married? A mother? Neapolitan? Divorced? Might a man have written her work? This is odd. Why is the main conversation we have been having, over the years, about such an important world writer, one in which the writer herself is forced into the limelight, discussed in terms of issues such as marital status, appearance, social background, finances and family life, while the work goes unmentioned? Does this help us appreciate her writing? Or does it rather (given the sensitive subject matter she deals with) jeopardise that very writing – its realism, its intimacy, its specificity? Would such insistence on ‘unmasking’ and ‘exposing’ and ‘revealing’ happen if the pseudonym were, instead, Mario Ferrante or Edoardo Ferrante, and the books centred on male characters? Troubled by such questions, I have always – like many fans – preferred the conceit with which Ferrante herself presented us: that the name ‘Elena Ferrante’ was a fictional construction who should stand in for the writer, allowing the work to speak for itself.
Therefore, this week I want to do what no one else is doing and talk about Elena Ferrante’s work: what it is, and what it means to me, and why it is worth reading, without reference to her ‘identity’ at all.
I first discovered Elena Ferrante while I was learning Italian. Like many language learners, I came to this language through necessity. My husband is Italian, and I knew that at some point sooner or later I was probably going to be an immigrant in this country, required to understand, to communicate, to integrate myself, in a place in which I had the distinct disadvantage of not having grown up. So I learned as much Italian as I could by ear, and then I turned to books. At the time I discovered Ferrante’s work, I was looking for books that were accessible to someone like me, keen to learn the language better but still limited. I bought a copy of L’Amica Geniale chiefly because I understood the first paragraph. At the beginning, I read with a dictionary, mirroring the diligence – a fact which struck me as amusing, at the time – of the studious character of Elena in the book, with her spectacles and second-hand textbooks, keen to get ahead but with mountains of missing knowledge, always instead limping behind. The books, in a way, became in my own mind a mirror for my journey towards fluency in Italian – at first they are written in the simple prose of childhood, then the more impassioned run-on sentences of Elena’s teenage voice, until the adult woman bursts forth, articulate and intelligent and more certain of herself.
Within a few chapters, however, I had put the dictionary away and was merely reading. The language of the book pulled me in – simple without ever being trite, violent and urgent without ever being graphic, unafraid to mimic the plain speech of childhood or the self-educated (useful for a second-language reader with a limited Italian vocabulary) without ever being childish or dull. In these words, I also found something immediate and real which I had not found before in any language. Ferrante wrote in a way I had never seen before about childhood, about womanhood, about education and social background and violence and aspiration – even about writing. On a deeply personal level, the passage where the young writer first sees herself in a newspaper, posing self-consciously in the familiar locations of her hometown, is the only realistic evocation of this experience I have ever found. Ferrante is not afraid to plumb the depths of every experience – the humiliating, exposing, unadmirable aspects of our consciousnesses, and our selves. For this reason, the books felt to me like something entirely new.
When the books began to achieve success in translation, therefore, I was delighted, but also a little surprised. Often, the images of Italy which filter into the English-speaking world are one-sided ones. So many of the English-language books I had encountered about Italy previously were written by British and American writers who had spent less time in the country than I had, who did not speak the language, and whose project was principally a touristic one, of chronicling the country from the outside in a way that portrayed only certain aspects of the place. Now, here was an Italy that felt like a real place, characters who embodied aspects of the country I recognised. And it was with this Italy that English-language readers fell in love, despite its dirt streets, its poverty, its violence, its dusty alleyways, and the most unglamorous, and probably truest, depiction of the small-time mafia I have ever found in any novel. Because, I realised, Elena Ferrante’s Napoli was a place, like the settings of all truly great literature, which through its specificity opened up great vistas of human nature, and became everywhere.
I read Storia del Nuovo Cognome in a couple of months, and Storia di Chi Fugge e di Chi Resta in a week or two. Storia della Bambina Perduta took me 48 hours. Then, immediately, I went back and read the books in English to find out what I had missed. By that time, I was, as I had predicted, an immigrant in Italy. And an odd thing happened during these post-Ferrante months: I found myself continuing to refer to the writer as I went about my daily life, as though she were a kind of ministering angel. When discussions of Italian politics began among my extended family or in the local bar, I navigated my way by Ferrante’s books, using them as a kind of social history of the twentieth century by which, as an immigrant who had spent her formative years elsewhere, I could ground myself. Ah yes, I would think, as though I had actually lived it. The period when everybody was communist. The building boom after the war. I know those things, because Ferrante wrote about them in her books. Since the character of Elena in the books lives in Torino, and this is the city where I also live, I developed a private theory that the writer lived here too. I imagined her somewhere genteel but faded, close to the river Po. When, sometimes, I was lonely here during my first months, I imagined that Ferrante might be walking the streets I walked, going in and out of the squares and palaces, and I found that oddly comforting. Strangely, I knew nothing about her, and yet I felt that I knew her better than any writer I had read.
I hesitated to write this essay, knowing that it would be a personal, not a critical appraisal of Ferrante, with very little new, in a literary-critical sense, to say about her work. But then it strikes me that the measure of a great writer is this: how far a reader distant from them in time and space can still discover themselves, intimately, in the work. So I want to say this: what we talk about when we talk about Elena Ferrante shouldn't be her earnings, her husband, her age, her looks, her ‘real name’. It should be her books. Elena Ferrante already exists – she is inscribed in every word she writes. This week, I discovered, like many people, that I don’t want to know anything else about. So, if you are considering reading the article which ‘unmasked’ her, I don’t recommend it. Instead, pick up one of her books. To read her work is to inhabit the mind of a great master of literature and life, a connection far more intimate than any poring over biographical details and superficial clues can give you. And I promise you won’t be disappointed with the real Elena Ferrante, who is no one else but the brave and gifted self already present in every word.