A few months ago, I sat in the pool-viewing area of Toronto’s West End YMCA reading My Brilliant Friend, a doorstop of a novel by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, while my daughter happily splashed her way through a lesson on the other side of the glass.
Another dad with a kid in the pool approached me, pointed at the book, and asked, with a grin that was frankly conspiratorial: “How are you liking it?” When I replied that I was liking it a lot, he told me, almost whispering, that an Italian friend of his sends him Ferrante’s books even before they get translated: “She is amazing.” I was impressed – as much by the idea of getting novels sent direct from Italy as by the mere fact that he knew who Elena Ferrante was.
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Actually, nobody knows who Elena Ferrante is – and not for the usual reasons that literary authors aren’t known. Even in her native country, where her books are best sellers, Ferrante is a mystery. The dust jacket bio for one of her books notes though she is “one of Italy’s most important and successful contemporary authors, she has shunned public attention and kept her identity concealed.” Not even her English translator, The New Yorker’s Ann Goldstein, has ever met her. (Though Goldstein, at least, is fairly sure that Ferrante exists, and is a woman – there has been all kinds of speculation.)
Modern readers have become a little spoiled by the idea that their favourite living authors are only a tweet away. Being a Ferrante fan – and she has some high-profile ones, such as author Alice Sebold, critic James Wood, filmmaker John Waters, and actress Gwyneth Paltrow – means abandoning those expectations. Once you’ve given up on the idea of getting to know an author through her Instagram account, what are you left with? In Ferrante’s case, you’re left with a half-dozen novels about women who are obsessive, compulsive, occasionally self-destructive, and always uncomfortably real. She covers the familiar literary territory of failed relationships and failing families, but is always finding within it new psychological sinkholes, new ethical swamps, new places of emotional rot. Her women are never blandly contemplative; their thoughts have claws, with which they scratch and dig and tear at the new and old wounds they are constantly finding within themselves. One critic has likened Ferrante to an angry Jane Austen, which works for me, though I usually go with “Alice Munro after a bad breakup and two bottles of wine.”
In her infamous and scorching second novel, 2002’s The Days of Abandonment (the first to be published in English, in 2005), a wife and mother of two named Olga falls apart after her husband decides one day to leave her for a younger woman. My wife, no shrinking violet when it comes to stories of damaged women, found it almost physically painful to read about Olga’s descent into hell. (The fumbled seduction of her downstairs neighbour, for example, is about as sexy as an autopsy.) Two other early novels – Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter – were similarly short, twisting, first-person narratives about women for whom self-affirmation frequently turns into self-abasement.
After those short-fused novels, Ferrante made a shift toward something more expansive. My Brilliant Friend, published in 2012, was the start of what have been dubbed “the Neapolitan Novels,” followed by The Story of a New Name and her newest book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, out in Canada this month. At the core of the Neapolitan Novels is the complex relationship between two women, Elena and Lila, born in the same year in a violent, working-class neighbourhood of Naples, who become “friends” (impossible not to put that word in quotation marks) as children in the 1950s, and who continue to cause each other suffering right up to the present day, though their lives go in very different directions.
At the very start of the series, Lila, at the age of 66, has disappeared – likely on purpose. Elena, the books’ narrator, is now a well-known writer (the coincidence of her first name and occupation is hard to ignore). She reacts to the disappearance of her old friend and nemesis not so much with concern, as with anger: walking away from her entire life is just the kind of thing the willful and self-destructive Lila would do. And so Elena decides to write everything she remembers about their friendship – i.e., the books we are reading. “We’ll see who wins this time,” she says to herself, which sets up nicely the tone and tension of the story that follows.
So far, the books clock in at around 1,200 pages, total, though by the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay we’ve only just reached the girls’ early 30s in the narrative’s main thread. Lila and Elena have gone from being bright schoolgirls who push at every turn against the confines of their conservative, male-dominated, and frequently brutal neighbourhood to becoming mothers and wives. Lila has already married, had one child with, and abandoned the abusive son of the local loan shark, and is reduced to working at a sausage factory, where the conditions are prison-like. Elena, meanwhile, has thrown herself into her education, which plucks her out of the neighbourhood and puts her among a more elite, bookish class she barely knows how to behave around. The frankly sexual novel about her childhood that she writes on a whim has become a surprise best seller, and briefly makes her a symbol of a more modern Italy.
In many other authors’ hands, the bare events of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay would’ve made for a boringly worthy, middle-brow affirmation about how bad the bad old days were, and, by extension, how great it is now that we’re all so liberated. Ferrante is a much trickier writer, however, one who resists simplistic readings. Even the new novel’s relationship to feminism is fraught: Lila, the strong, willful woman who makes choices in the face of tradition, is punished for her transgressions, while Elena, much more passive and naïve, seems to win life’s lottery. “We made a pact when we were children,” Lila tells one of Elena’s scholarly colleagues. “I’m the wicked one.”
And yet, as with all the Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is filled with strong, lively women – even the most willingly victimized among them is more memorable than any of the male characters, who tend to be narrowly rendered. Ferrante seems to delight in these contradictions and complexities. For one thing, these are dense, serious books, filled with violence, brutality, class conflicts, political upheaval, and, surprisingly, almost no pop culture. (In a seeming violation of the literary rules, no character gets transported by sound of The Beatles or the sight of Audrey Hepburn; instead they have long, heated debates about socialism and so battle with fascists.) And yet, they are also incredibly readable, told in a deceptively plain style, with enough violence, sex, seduction, marriage, infidelity, and divorce to sustain a dozen seasons on HBO.
This complexity is part of the reason why I hope that Elena Ferrante – in defiance of the expectations of the TMZ era – manages to stay hidden forever. I don’t want to know what she’s like, what she is thinking, where she gets her mid-morning coffee. Books like Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay are more than enough.