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Until recently, few readers or critics on this side of the Atlantic paid much attention to “Elena Ferrante,” the presumed pseudonym of a successful Italian novelist who has kept her identity secret for nearly 30 years. Those who did marveled at what the New Yorker’s James Wood called “remarkable, lucid, astonishingly honest novels,” and “intensely, violently personal prose.” Wood’s January 2013 New Yorker essay on Ferrante’s fiction piqued interest in “My Brilliant Friend,” the first of the author’s Neapolitan novels published in the U.S. Soon after, book groups began adopting the title, and word of mouth spurred sales of the novel and its successor, “The Story of a New Name.”
“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, was released stateside in early September to rapturous reviews. The books are now “something of a cult sensation,” wrote Karen Valby in Entertainment Weekly, one of the few outlets that has been able to snag an email interview with the publicity-averse author. Publications from Harper’s Magazine and Vogue have run full-length features, while the daily and Sunday editions of the New York Times have offered significant praise. A recent Times Style Magazine cover headline asked: “Who is Elena Ferrante?” (They offered no answers, only applause.)
Some of the allure of this elusive author comes from her lack of interest in discussing herself and her work, Kent Carroll of Europa Editions, and Ferrante’s U.S. publisher explained during a phone conversation last week. Novels, Ferrante has said, should speak for themselves, and hers do precisely that, with splendid prose keenly translated to English by Ann Goldstein. Demographics also play a role: Most readers of good literary and popular fiction are women, said Carroll, and women have been buying not only the third book in the Neapolitan series, but the first two as well. And, with reason — Ferrante’s novels present one of the most extraordinary portraits of lifelong female friendship I can recall.
The Neapolitan novels tell a story of Lila and Elena, a pair of whip-smart, imaginative and ambitious girls who meet as 8-year-olds in a lower-class neighborhood in Naples. Their saga unfolds over six decades, from the 1950s through the 21st century, and is narrated in the present by Elena, a successful writer in her 60s living in Turin. She recalls her and Lila’s love and fear, support and scorn for one another as their lives continually converge and split over the years.
As children, Elena and Lila study together. They read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” and make plans to write novels that will make them both rich. Lila, the prettier and quicker of the two, is a mesmerizing presence who seems to possess some sort of second sight. Preternaturally intelligent — she learns to read at the age of 3 — she outshines the gifted but quiet Elena in their local primary school and in their neighborhood.
Lila “took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy,” explains Elena, who, for many years, grieves Lila’s absence during ruptures in the friendship. She fears that “in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.”
In the presence of her “terrible, dazzling” friend, though, Elena also suffers. When Lila, recently married and restless, plunges into a love affair with Nino, a bookish boy from the neighborhood whom Elena has quietly adored since childhood, Elena admonishes herself for muting her feelings for Nino — or for dreaming he would ever take interest in a short, full-figured, awkward girl who wears glasses. In an act of self-loathing, she succumbs to the advances of Nino’s lecherous father and loses her virginity.
But Elena is a survivor. She makes her way out of the neighborhood and to university in Pisa, becomes engaged to a young academic, and publishes an autobiographical novel that draws inspiration — and perhaps more — from Lila’s childhood stories and notebooks.
Ferrante gives voice to emotions and experiences few writers articulate, and Elena’s raw accounts of unloving sex, suppressed rage and relentless self-doubt are acute and disquieting. The author is equally adept at rendering both sweeping and subtle changes of lives as they evolve and are shaped by circumstances and inevitable shifts of power and advantage among friends.
Each of the Neapolitan Novels is accompanied by a cast list of sorts — names and identities of enough recurring characters to populate a movie or miniseries. The books are cinematic, particularly in their presentation of larger-than-life characters — Lila in particular — and the city of Naples itself.
“My Brilliant Friend” depicts a vibrant city emerging from the rubble of war; small sectors of it bustle with hints of prosperity and social progress. Others — like the neighborhood in which Lila and Elena grow up — are places of violence and impoverished expectations, where no family is safe from the protection of the Camorra, the local crime syndicate.
Ferrante watchers have gleaned bits of biographical information from her published letters and a sparse handful of interviews. She was born and raised in Naples, and holds a degree in classical literature. She has been married, and she is a mother. She appears to have worked in academia. When she isn’t writing, she has told journalists, “I study, I translate, I teach.”
The writer known as Elena Ferrante had me at the prologue to the Neapolitan series, in which Elena learns from Lila’s feckless, 40-year-old son Rino that his mother, now 66, has disappeared. The deftly drawn episode introduces a pair of flawed, complex and brilliant friends, now in their autumn years, who are about to enter the next phase of their fraught lifelong friendship. Rich, unsentimental fiction that spans women’s lives is remarkably rare.
I devoured the first three Neapolitan novels, and for days after, found myself missing the characters’ messy, maddening lives. Like many among Ferrante’s ardent and expanding fan base, I’m disappointed — and can’t quite believe — that we have to wait until fall 2015 for the fourth book’s release.
Meanwhile, I don’t think we’re going to learn a lot more about Ferrante’s personal life. Nor do I care that much — I just want her to keep writing.
A former arts and culture reporter for the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix, Maureen Dezell is a freelance writer and senior editor at Boston College. www.maureendezell.com.