Presented by Janet Halls, March 6, 2018
As of March 2018, Elena Ferrante has the simplest of biographies: “Elena Ferrante was born in Naples”, and a list of 8 books. She fiercely retains her privacy to devote time to her family and writing and maintains that books will find their readers, without their authors, if they are worth reading. To fill the void, the writer published a book in 2016 called Frantumaglia, a Writer’s Journey, which contains a collection of letters and written interviews. “Frantumaglia” means “fragments” or “shards”: a good description of how she reveals herself and her works.
Ferrante first published three short novels and a children’s book, prior to her best-selling series The Neapolitan Quartet. [Dates refer to the Italian publication, then the English translation.]
- Troubling Love (1999; 2006): A mystery which unravels the narrator’s relationship with her mother and father, and memories and secrets repressed since her Naples’ childhood. An Italian film was made of this.
- The Days of Abandonment (2002; 2005): A woman, just abandoned by her husband, writes a “no holds barred” journal. She depicts, in unsentimental terms (her Neapolitan upbringing is evident), motherhood, marriage and solitude. An Italian film was made of this.
- The Lost Daughter (2006; 2008): A professor intrudes herself, little by little, into a Neapolitan family holidaying at the beach. This psychologically unsettling book explores a woman’s turmoil, striving for self-determination while being wife and mother.
- The Beach at Night (2007; 2016): Picture book. Ferrante’s characters in all her novels speak in the dialect of Naples, which is described as raw, profane and disturbing. This poem exemplifies this character, even in a children’s book:
Open your maw
I’ve shit for your craw
Drink up the pee
Drink it for me
THE NEAPOLITAN QUARTET
The Neapolitan Quartet, a series published between 2012 and 2015, include similar themes but contain far more complex storytelling, technicolor settings and a large cast of intriguing characters who mature through 60 years. It’s hard to put down.
My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child tell one story, to be read in order. The books encompass the tumultuous and always entangled lives of best friends, who grow up in a chaotic slum in post-war Italy. Both girls are born in Naples, August 1944, and meet in first grade, 1950. They come of age when female social and sexual norms are significantly changing in the western world. Post-war Italy’s violent politics and the Neapolitan underworld rumble and sometimes explode about them. Through the years, their friendship wavers back and forth: admiring, competitive, uneasy, supportive, dismissive, ashamed, proud, jealous, antagonistic: It’s complicated. Their lives are almost mirrors, given their identical age, background and intelligence. They are alike; They are different. As girls, they shared a big dream: to become professional writers. Lina maneuvers, with grit and intelligence, her difficult life in Naples over six decades. Elena escapes, through education, to become a published feminist author and in-demand speaker in Europe. However, she is drawn back to Naples, over and over. It is only there that she believes she can write with authenticity and impact, especially because she knows Lina/Lila’s struggles – or does she? She has become a stranger in her neighbourhood, now an intellectual who is more at home speaking refined Italian instead of Naples’ dialect. Lina wants her friend to write persuasively of Naples’ social and political struggles. However, she comes in conflict with Elena when her writing about “the neighbourhood” becomes personal and dangerous. Each, at times, sees in her “best friend” what her own life may have been in other circumstances.
WHY I CHOSE ELENA FERRANTE AS “MY FAVORITE AUTHOR”:
- She nails down women’s thoughts and emotions.
- Ferrante’s works employ a reader’s intuition and emotional intelligence to understand people and situations that the characters themselves don’t always understand. The reader’s “Ah ha!” moments are so unexpected and satisfying, one would think that the story had to be carefully planned, almost word by word. However, Ferrante reveals in Frantumaglia: “… as the story advances, the more uncertain, reticent, unreliable (the narrators) appear, almost without realizing it… (The story)… happens when you have a clamor in your head and you continue to write as if taking dictation, even while you’re doing the shopping, even when you eat, even in your sleep. Thus, the story – as long as it keeps going – has no need of reorganization. For all sixteen hundred pages of the Neapolitan Quartet I never felt the need to restructure events, characters, feelings, turning points, reversals. And yet – I am amazed myself, since the story is so long, so rich in characters who develop over a long period of time – I never resorted to notes, chronologies, plans of any sort.”
- Specifically, in The Neapolitan Quartet, the broader historical period of the 1950’s to our own decade filters in, providing insight into our own lives, wherever they are lived.
- The large cast of characters, male and female, major and minor, have depth and complexity. They are revealed in tantalizing glimpses over decades.
Wilda Dow shared this quote from her favorite author, Amy Tan (The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life), who expresses exactly why I recommend reading Elena Ferrante:
“I write very much for the same reasons that I read: to startle my mind, to churn my heart, to tingle my spine, to knock the blinders off my eyes, and allow me to see beyond the pale.”