Italy’s Great, Mysterious Storyteller

My Brilliant Friend

by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 331 pp., $17.00 (paper)

The Story of a New Name

by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 471 pp., $18.00 (paper)

The Lost Daughter

by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 140 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Troubling Love

by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 139 pp., $15.00 (paper)

The Days of Abandonment

by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 188 pp., $14.95 (paper)
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Magnum Photos
Naples, 1964; photograph by Bruno Barbey

There is a devastating exchange in The Story of a New Name, the second of three—soon to be four—books in Elena Ferrante’s masterful Naples novels, in which Lila, one of the two main characters, runs into her former schoolteacher, Maestra Oliviero, on the street. To the teacher’s dismay, Lila, now in her late teens, did not continue her education after elementary school, in spite of her fierce intellectual promise, and is now married and has a small son. The maestra ignores the child, Rino, and looks only at the book Lila is carrying. Lila is nervous. “The title is Ulysses,” she says. “Is it about the Odyssey?” the teacher asks.

“No, it’s about how prosaic life is today.”

“And so?”

“That’s all. It says that our heads are full of nonsense. That we are flesh, blood, and bone. That one person has the same value as another. That we want only to eat, drink, fuck.”

The maestra chides Lila for her bad language, tells her that anyone can have a family, but that she had been destined for greater things. “Don’t read books that you can’t understand, it’s bad for you,” the teacher says. “A lot of things are bad for you,” Lila answers.

This small exchange cuts to the heart of much that animates these remarkable books and their author—the most powerful and enigmatic writer to emerge from contemporary Italy. For one, Ferrante, who hides behind a pseudonym and has never made a public appearance—does not disguise the fact that, like Ulysses, her Naples novels, in their own way, are epic in their scope and ambitions. The narrator of these books—My Brilliant Friend (2012; English translation 2012), The Story of a New Name (2012; English translation 2013), and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013; English translation 2014)—is Elena Greco, literally Helen the Greek.

Her journey does not take place by sea; it is far more interior, revealed in a kind of Neapolitan bildungsroman that traverses the long afternoons of childhood, girlhood, adolescence, motherhood. Stretching out over more than 1,200 pages, the three books have as many characters and subplots as a nineteenth-century novel. But at their heart, they follow the intense friendship and rivalry between Elena and Raffaella Cerullo, known to others as Lina and to Elena as Lila, from the miserable outskirts of Naples after World War II, through the economic boom of the 1960s and political turmoil of the 1970s, to the present day. By turns, both Lila and Elena are seen to be the brilliant friend of the other; their lives, inextricably connected, dovetail and diverge over decades.

The tale opens in 2010, when Rino, Lila’s now-adult son, calls Elena to say that Lila, now aged sixty-six, has disappeared. Elena, an accomplished writer, begins to look backward, to her Neapolitan youth, when she, the daughter of a porter and a housewife, and Lila, the daughter of a cobbler, pricked their fingers and bonded through blood, after losing their dolls in the dark cellar of the home of Don Achille, the much-feared neighborhood loan shark.

We then move forward in time, through marriages, children, love affairs, separations, successes and miserable failures, deaths, murders, literary triumphs. The characters, like those of the ancients, are forever negotiating between destinies that might be prescribed from the outset and their own attempts to gain some element of mastery over their fates. We begin, after all, in Naples, the epicenter of Italian fatalism, the heart of the Camorra organized crime network, the presence of which lingers in these books like a fog, setting a social code with which everyone must in some way reckon. (“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,” Elena says, early on in My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in the series. “It was full of violence.”

Although Lila’s interpretation of Ulysses is at once naively off the mark and brutally accurate, the point here is less about literal and literary readings or misreadings. The schoolteacher may not have heard of Joyce, but it is she who has single-handedly spotted the nascent talent of both Lila and Elena and encouraged them to study their way to independence, to escape the misery of their circumstances and a future as more or less imprisoned housewives. Ferrante’s Naples books are essentially about knowledge—its possibilities and its limits. Intellectual knowledge, sexual knowledge, political knowledge. What kind of knowledge does it take to get by in this world? How do we attain that knowledge? How does our knowledge change us and wound us and empower us, often at the same time? What things do we want to know and what would we prefer to leave unknown? What can we control? Who has power over our lives?

In My Brilliant Friend, it is immediately clear that Lila and Elena and the other Neapolitan children show from an extremely early age a preternatural understanding of power dynamics. They know to whom they must pay respect and to whom they have to lose, even if they recognize that they have the power to win. In one fundamental scene in an elementary school classroom, Lila, respected for her intellect and her defiance against those to whom she is expected to be beholden, is pitted in a math contest against Enzo, the son of the fruit vendor. The boy barely speaks Italian, and utters the answers in Neapolitan dialect, after managing to do the complicated math calculations in his head. Lila, the star of the class, defeats Enzo. “Many modes of behavior started out there that were difficult to decipher,” Elena says. “For example it became very clear that Lila could, if she wanted, ration the use of her abilities.” Much later in their lives, Enzo, who has settled his accounts with his fate and with the world, will come to Lila’s rescue. But after the math contest, the boys hate Lila for defeating him, and begin to throw rocks at her and Elena, a violence that is at once a sign of anger and of respect.

Some years later, still in childhood, Lila defends Elena against the taunts of the neighborhood boys by holding a knife to the throat of Marcello Solara, the son of a local cammorista, and making clear without the slightest ambiguity that she is prepared to use it. This terrifies Marcello but also sparks in him a love for Lila that he will carry throughout his whole life. This, too, is characteristic of Ferrante, tracing the barely perceptible line between brutality and love.

These books have blood, of murder and menstruation, as well as tears and sweat. Men do violence against women, and women against men. Women are betrayed and also betray—themselves and others. In all of Ferrante’s writing, there is also a lot of visceral, often unromantic sex. It would be accurate, although perhaps reductive, to call these books feminist. It is enough to say that they bring a scrutiny and an intensity rare in contemporary literature—or in any literature, for that matter—to exploring in intimate, often excruciating detail the full experience of being a woman and, in the Naples novels, the deep complexity of female friendship. Among other things, these Naples books offer a brilliant and sustained study of envy, that most pernicious of emotions, because it can sometimes disguise itself as love.

Take this passage from The Story of a New Name, which begins with the day of Lila’s wedding, at age sixteen, to Stefano Carracci, the son of Don Achille. (The Italian word in the title is cognome, surname, and the implied name change is Lila’s.) As the wedding unfolds, Lila comes to understand that she doesn’t love Stefano and may never, something that dawns on her when she comprehends that he is not entirely free, that he, like everyone in the area but, she would like to believe, not herself, is beholden to the Solara family, who arrive uninvited at the wedding with a courtesy that elegantly masks an implied threat of violence.

An awkward teenager, Elena is envious of her friend’s imminent entry into the world of sex. The morning of the wedding, in a moment that recalls an almost tribal rite of passage, Elena washes Lila. The scene is characteristic of Ferrante’s writing—a rush of emotion, life unfolding and documented in real time by a female narrator struggling to comprehend her own jumble of contradictory impulses, and to lay bare her own inescapable thoughts with a disarming honesty:

I washed her with slow, careful gestures, first letting her squat in the tub, then asking her to stand up: I still have in my ears the sound of the dripping water, and the impression that the copper of the tub had a consistency not different from Lila’s flesh, which was smooth, solid, calm. I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness.

But in the end there was only the hostile thought that I was washing her, from her hair to the soles of her feet, early in the morning, just so that Stefano could sully her in the course of the night. I imagined her naked as she was at that moment, entwined with her husband, in the bed in the new house, while the train clattered under their windows and his violent flesh entered her with a sharp blow, like the cork pushed by the palm into the neck of a wine bottle. And it suddenly seemed to me that the only remedy against the pain I was feeling, that I would feel, was to find a corner secluded enough so that Antonio could do to me, at the same time, the exact same thing.

Elena helps initiate Lila into womanhood, but it is Lila who awakens in Elena a sense of competition, both sexual and literary, inspiring in her the self-reflection that will later help her become a novelist, and also driving her to want to lose her virginity before marriage, an act of defiance in Naples of the late 1950s. (The man who performs the act will later write a dismissive review of her first novel.) The two friends’ lives will be dark mirrors of one another for decades. Lila abandons her school and intellectual ambitions, after her father refuses to allow her to take the middle school exam. She works as a cobbler, then becomes a glamorous young bride. Later, she works at menial jobs, including at a meat-processing plant whose conditions put her in extreme physical pain.

Elena graduates from Liceo Classico, a fast track to the upper middle class. Although a dropout, Lila is still the better student, and helps Elena study Latin and Greek. Elena makes it to the prestigious Università Normale di Pisa. She marries a classics scholar and begins to write articles and eventually, to her own surprise, a novel. (“On every page there is something powerful whose origin I can’t figure out,” Elena’s editor tells her.) Lila, too, turns out to have been keeping secret notebooks. In The Story of a New Name, she entrusts them to Elena for safekeeping. Later, in one of the most wounding moments in the entire trilogy, Elena throws the notebooks into the Arno—a murderous act, but something Elena feels she must do in order to claim her own power over her brilliant friend.

Throughout, Elena remains in awe of Lila, for her ability to have true feelings, “to be drawn beyond the limits,” to seize the things she wants, while Elena so often feels that she has “stayed behind, waiting.” Later on, Elena realizes that her celebrated novel in fact draws its emotional power from a short story that Lila had written in elementary school, “The Blue Fairy,” a piece of writing that Maestra Oliviero had ignored. Sometime after this, Elena brings a copy of “The Blue Fairy” to Lila at the meat-processing plant. Lila tosses it on the fire.

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena has won a literary prize for her book, which has been praised for its “modernizing force.” It is 1969. A bomb has exploded at the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana in Milan, killing seventeen people and wounding dozens more, one of the most mysterious episodes of the Years of Lead. In her acceptance speech, Elena says she feels as happy as the astronauts who have walked on “the white expanse of the moon.” She calls Lila, back in Naples, to tell her about the prize. Lila has already read the news in the local paper and mocks her for her remarks:

The white expanse of the moon, she said ironically, sometimes it’s better to say nothing than to talk nonsense. And she added that the moon was a rock among billions of other rocks, and that, as far as rocks go, the best thing was to stand with your feet planted firmly in the troubles of the earth.

Soon after, Elena has a daughter. “I had atrocious labor pains, but they didn’t last long. When the baby emerged I saw her, black-haired, a violet organism that, full of energy, writhed and wailed, I felt a physical pleasure so piercing that I still know no other pleasure that compares to it,” Ferrante writes. Elena calls Lila. “‘It was a wonderful experience,’ I told her. ‘What?’ ‘The pregnancy, the birth. Adele is beautiful, and very good.’ She answered: ‘Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.’”

And now we arrive at the not small matter of the author herself. That Ferrante is a pseudonym, has no public presence, has never been seen, gives her a strange place in Italy, a country obsessed with image, where if you aren’t on television, you barely exist.

Although she has a small cult following, I’ve been struck by the number of friends in Italy—intellectuals, journalists, readers—who had never heard of Ferrante until I mentioned her. In Italy, she is published by the small house E/O, and in English by its sister house, Europa Editions, both of which specialize in works in translation. Ferrante has begun to gain a devoted English-language readership, following an early laudatory review of My Brilliant Friend by James Wood in The New Yorker last year—and, of course, thanks to the splendidly vivid and fluent English translations of her six novels by Ann Goldstein. But in spite of the fact that The Days of Abandonment was a best seller in Italy in 2002, and Troubling Love, published in 1992, was made into a film directed by the Neapolitan director Mario Martone, Ferrante is not a household name in Italy.

Her anonymity has inspired many rumors. Is her work actually the product of collaboration by a group of authors? Does she work in cinema? (The Naples novels are cinematic in scope, and the rough prose of the third book in the Naples series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which has a more political plot than the earlier ones, set amid the Years of Lead and the burgeoning feminist movement, at times has the feel of a screenplay.)

Most often asked is: Is she really a man?—a question that may be more telling about contemporary Italy than about Ferrante’s work. Is she, as some have suggested, the Neapolitan writer and screenwriter Domenico Starnone? Is she Anita Raja, a consultant for E/O who has translated the works of Christa Wolf and others from German into Italian and happens to be Starnone’s wife? In a rare public exchange, a written Q&A published in the Financial Times in late September, Ferrante acknowledged that she has a day job. Asked how she would earn her living if she had to give up writing, she answers, “With the work I have been doing every day for years—which is not writing.” She also cites Virginia Woolf and Elsa Morante as her greatest literary influences.

In many ways, Ferrante’s pseudonym operates as a kind of witness protection program. Her books, especially the first three novels—Troubling Love (1992; English translation 2006), The Days of Abandonment (2002; English translation 2005), The Lost Daughter (2006, English translation 2008)—which are tighter and less plot-driven than the Naples trilogy, carry such an electric charge that even the slightest bit of detail about the author’s own experience might cause acute emotional pain to anyone involved. In the absence of information, the questions multiply in the mind. Did Elena Ferrante have affairs like those in which Lila and Elena become involved? Did she slip into a kind of depressive madness for a time after a husband left her for another woman, as happens to Olga in The Days of Abandonment? Was she a tormented young mother like Leda, the divorced narrator of The Lost Daughter, who leaves her husband and two young girls because she feels suffocated?

Was she, like the protagonists of The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter, and also Elena in the Naples books, negotiating between the crushing daily demands of being a mother and wife while urgently trying to clear the mental space, the peace of mind, to write? Did she, like Elena in the Naples books, grow up in poverty in Naples with parents who could barely read, and through education achieve a kind of mastery over her life, only to live in constant fear of being pulled back into the world she thought she had escaped, of reverting to a more primal version of herself, one that speaks in Neapolitan dialect and not Italian? Who leaves and who stays?

Ferrante’s anonymity has one significant effect: the teller recedes for the sake of the tale. Once again, we are back to the ancients. All of Ferrante’s books, but in particular the three early novels, could be seen as a kind of contemporary Metamorphoses. The most significant transformations in all of her work are those of women at different stages of their lives. The daughter becomes the wife becomes the mother and yet retains elements of all three roles, which are often at odds within her. In The Days of Abandonment Olga’s children make her pay for “murky, imagined sins that I had not committed.” In Troubling Love, whose Italian title, L’Amore molesto, has darker overtones, the protagonist, Delia, an unmarried cartoonist, tries on the bathrobe that her newly dead mother wore before drowning, and in some ways becomes her mother. In one unsettling scene of sex that is not entirely consensual, but not entirely a violation, Delia goes to bed with the son of her mother’s lover.

In The Lost Daughter, Leda, on vacation alone after leaving her husband and two daughters, finds herself obsessed with a Neapolitan family at the beach. The toddler daughter in the family—named, as it happens, Elena—loses her doll, Nani; Leda picks it up and, for reasons mysterious even to herself, holds on to it. Even the names morph into one another. These modern antiheroines create and recreate themselves, shift shapes, transform from one state of being to another, from anguish to calm, and often back to anguish. Unlike the literary heroines of past centuries, in Ferrante’s novels the leading women characters have the luxury of operating in the contemporary world, with all its doubts and ambiguities, answering more to their own troubled consciences than to crushing social restrictions that have fallen away in postwar Italy.

The Days of Abandonment tells the story of Olga, a thirty-eight-year-old woman who is, in effect, razed to the ground by her husband’s leaving her, but who rebuilds herself over time, after looking at herself from the outside, as if observing someone else. These women may be victims of circumstance, but they master their fates in the only way they know how: through extraordinarily close observation as an act of will, but one often without resolution or revelation. At the end of The Days of Abandonment, Olga explains to a man with whom she has become involved what happened in her moment of madness. “I had an excessive reaction that pierced the surface of things,” she says. “And then?” her companion asks. “I fell.” “And where did you end up?” “Nowhere. There was no depth, there was no precipice. There was nothing.”

At the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena is working on a new book. She isn’t sure if it’s a novel or not. Asked its theme, she answers, “Men who fabricate women,” and the conversation then turns to Pygmalion and similar stories. But in the original Italian, the phrase is more ambiguous. Elena’s answer, “I maschi che fabbricano le femmine,” could also mean “the men that women fabricate.” At least since Dante’s Inferno, the verb fabbricare, to fabricate, make, or forge, has contained within it the suggestion of falsification and trickery. Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.

Although they are all set in Italy, there is nothing scenic in any of Ferrante’s books. The action takes place in the ugly outskirts of Naples, or nondescript apartments; occasionally there is a splash of beach or the well-appointed apartments of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia. There is a memorable scene in My Brilliant Friend in which Lila and Elena, as young girls, try to walk from their home to the sea, which they have been told is nearby but have never seen. For the most part, the settings are as spare as the stage for a Greek drama, all the better to probe the inner life. The prose can be unlovely. There is rarely rhetorical flair. The early novels have an economy of language. The Naples novels are baggier, more focused on story and incident.

All of Ferrante’s books lack humor. Nothing in them will ever make you laugh, except perhaps a dark, uncomfortable laughter. “Books don’t change your life,” Ferrante told the Financial Times in September. “At most, if they are good, they can hurt and bring confusion.” That is the cumulative effect of reading her work. These novels all head terrifyingly quickly to a very deep place.

Like many, I came rather late to Ferrante. Reading her for the first time this year was revelatory. Is it possible that in all those years of Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy—the Italy of showgirls and underage girls, of reality television and plastic surgery, the Italy of some of the lowest female employment rates in Europe, the Italy of economic and cultural stagnation, of pervasive torpor and resistance to change, years when many among the left-wing intelligentsia, in their lovely, inherited apartments, were engaged in halfhearted soul searching about how the Italy of Anna Magnani had somehow become the Italy of Ruby Heartstealer—is it possible that here, all along, was a clear and terrible voice, fully inhabiting the historical moment yet also transcending it, telling the stories of Italian women in all their contradictions and force? Can it really be possible that she has been here all along, if only we had turned off the television to listen?

At the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the latest volume in the Naples series, we are still in 1976, wondering what will happen with Elena, the successful writer and mother of two children, who has grown disenchanted with her inert professor husband only to find herself desperately in love with Nino Sarratore, a boy from the neighborhood who has grown up to become an intellectual, who is also married to someone else, and who in one crucial episode had been Lila’s lover. In fact, he is the man who had inspired Lila to read Ulysses.

We still don’t know what becomes of Lila, after her disappearance at age sixty-six, several years after warning Elena never to write about her. Will she meet the fate of Amalia, the mother in Troubling Love, who drowns in the sea, most likely a suicide? Will she find a kind of peace of mind, as does Olga in The Days of Abandonment? The fourth book in the Naples series has just appeared in Italian and is scheduled to be published in English in November 2015. To those of us fully entangled in the Ferrante universe, participants in this Greek chorus, who have come to care about these characters as much as we care about some people in our actual lives, to those of us who have come to scrutinize the world and ourselves all the more intensely for having read these unforgettable books, her latest report could not have arrived soon enough.