When Taylor Swift is occupying our minds with her drama, it is hard to think about much else. It is also hard to consider that drama on Swift’s level could occur anywhere else: much less in the literary world. However, last year, contemporary literature underwent a scandal on comparable levels.
‘Elena Ferrante’ is the pseudonym of an unknown Italian writer, who found great fame and success across Europe, the UK and America with The Neapolitan Novels. The series of four books, which opens with My Brilliant Friend, is set in postwar Naples and follows the lives of two clever young women, Lila and Elena, from a small, poor neighbourhood.
The frenzy of speculation about Ferrante’s true identity climaxed a year ago when she was apparently revealed to be Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator, by Italian journalist Claudi Gatti in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. A global debate on anonymity and gender in literature followed. Would her refusal to reveal herself have been seen as her upholding her writer’s integrity, and would she have been harassed to such a wearying extent, had she been a man?
During the row her publisher, Sandro Ferri, told La Repubblica: “Stop the siege of Elena Ferrante. She is not a criminal.”
Gatti certainly used intrusive methods in his investigation, digging into Italian property records which allegedly showed Raja and her husband had bought expensive apartments in Rome at the time that Ferrante became an international sensation. But such intrusion into Ferrante’s life detracts from her work.
While pen names have historically been used by women to gain literary respect, including the likes of George Eliot, Ferrante’s ‘nom de plume’ was not for the sake of her audience. In 1991 she wrote: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” She hoped anonymity would preserve “a space of absolute creative freedom.”
Whether the books are masterpieces as a result of that creative freedom, or as a result of Ferrante’s skilled penmanship, is debatable. But they are masterpieces. Ferrante writes the truest portrayal of a female friendship, capturing minute details: the closeness and the growing apart, reuniting, trust and lack of it, all stemming from a shared childhood in a hugely underprivileged place.
Ferrante explores the relief and the persecution that follows when one friend breaks away from that place, and what it is like for the person left behind. The undercurrent of the intense rivalries between two close female friends is the backbone of the epic story. Ferrante’s writing is so profound that it is understandable that the author wants privacy.
She writes with powerful intimacy about women’s lives, from the humdrum of the domestic pressures in the family and the restrictive Neapolitan culture, to the characters’ sexual and professional experiences. This is unique and underexplored in modern literary fiction. By being immersed in these characters’ consciousnesses we examine ourselves, from our own privileges and access to education, to the relationships with our friends, mothers, lovers. And we are the lucky ones.
The series finale, The Story of the Lost Child, was published in the UK in 2015, so this literary binge can go ahead with full force.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
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