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Guy Somerset of the New Zealand Festival: "While the Neapolitan Novels are about women – Elena and Lila – they are also novels about writing about women."

Date: Aug 24 2015

Who’d be a Neapolitan woman novelist? A Neapolitan woman at all. A Neapolitan male novelist, for that matter. Any Neapolitan male. The net of suspicion has been cast wide. Who is Elena Ferrante? And how does she – or he – sleep at night?

What we do know about Ferrante is the name is a pseudonym used by the author of what are collectively known as the Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) and concluding volume The Story of the Lost Child, which is published on 1 September.

These novels – telling the story of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, of their extended family and friends, their poor neighbourhood in Naples, and ultimately of Italian society as a whole, across the course of 50 years – have grown from the quiet beginnings of enthusiastic reviews by the New Yorker’s James Wood and others, with the Economist describing her as possibly “the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of”, into a fully fledged phenomenon complete with its own Twitter hashtag (#FerranteFever) and rampant speculation about the author’s identity (Jonathan Franzen being the latest, most tongue-in-cheek, suggestion).

The success of the Neapolitan series has led, inevitably, to the reissue of Ferrante’s three earlier novels, Troubling Love (1992), The Days of Abandonment (2002) and The Lost Daughter (2006).

If the Neapolitan Novels are remarkable for their honesty and the depths of psychological and emotional acuity they plumb, the earlier novels are on another level again: probing the darkest recesses of their women protagonists’ feelings towards their mothers and children, their sexual and social alienation, the assailment of their senses (taste, smell, etc) by the physical world around them, their recurring feelings of repulsion, the sheer precariousness of their self-identity.

It’s a remorseless view of the world, but an utterly compelling one – The Days of Abandonment, in particular, with its agonisingly raw portrayal of a woman abandoned by her husband.

As much as you want to read the novels, however, you wouldn't want it to be anyone in your own life writing them. Your daughter, mother, wife. Or, if you’re at the outer limits of the theorising about who Ferrante is, your son, father, husband. If that were what they were really thinking, you’d probably rather not know. Evasions of the truth are an important social and familial glue. Honesty is a prerequisite of good fiction, but not necessarily of day-to-day living. That’s what we pay writers for.

There must be an awful lot of suspicious glances being exchanged in Naples these days. Ferrante makes a persuasive case for staying anonymous, but to calm all that uncomfortable speculation, perhaps she should come clean. It’s a lot of to have on her conscience otherwise.

An added layer of complexity to the conundrum of Ferrante’s identity is the prevalence of women novelists among her narrators, not least Elena Greco, leading readers to wonder about the extent to which Elena Greco is in fact Elena Ferrante (the Elena/Ferrante phenomenon, as it were), and about the amount of autobiographical material in the Neapolitan Novels.

Further blurring the lines are the novels’ self-reflexive references to the kind of fiction Greco writes, which sounds very much like the kind of fiction Ferrante writes: “Dirty stuff ended up in there [...] stuff that men don’t want to hear and women know but are afraid to say” or “I wanted the writing to be lively, new, deliberately chaotic, and I didn't hold back”.

I wanted the writing to be lively, new, deliberately chaotic, and I didn’t hold back.

Reading through literature, “from the first and second Biblical creations”, and including Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, Greco “discovered everywhere female automatons created by men. There was nothing of ourselves [...]”.

While the Neapolitan Novels are about women – Elena and Lila – they are also novels about writing about women.

The “dirty stuff”, though, is in the early novels more than the Neapolitan Novels, which are actually quite coy about sex, holding back from the excruciatingly exposing close-ups of Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment.

Indeed, readers moving on from the Neapolitan Novels to the earlier ones might be shocked by their much greater ferocity.

In the Neapolitan Novels, Ferrante has translated the same themes into what for many will be a more mainstream and palatable form, and what is certainly a more popular one: a bildungsroman and sweeping work of historical fiction that encompasses friendship, yes, but also expands outward to take in a vast cast of other characters (to the reader's frequent consternation: “Gigliola, who’s Gigliola again? No, don’t tell me, I know”; “Antonio? Damn, I thought I had that one, but no”), Italy’s camorrista criminal culture, the peculiarities of regional dialect as a signifier of class, education and emotional temperature, politics (Fascism vs Communism), feminism, sexual relations ...

Italian life itself, you might say – and much of our own lives, too. No wonder it’s such a phenomenon. And if occasionally the series strays towards the soapy, there’s a welcome whiff of the carbolic about the soap. Because the Neapolitan Novels are Ferrante’s Sentimental Education, and as with Gustave Flaubert’s novel, there’s nothing sentimental about them at all. Life’s not like that, and Ferrante is never less than true to life and the magnificent mess that it is.

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