Do you know Elena Ferrante?
The Italian author’s urgent, blistering fiction has made her something of a cult sensation here in America. I myself had never heard of her until this summer, when I dove deep into her Neapolitan series, an intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends Lila and Elena, bright and passionate girls from a raucous neighborhood in working-class Naples. Ferrante writes with such aggression and unnerving psychological insight about the messy complexity of female friendship that the real world can drop away when you’re reading her. ”My work is sometimes a struggle,” says Ann Goldstein, her long-standing English translator. ”It’s very intense and very disturbing, and sometimes I have to walk away. But then when I’m done I sort of think, ‘Wait, where are those people? My life is now empty.”’
The first Neapolitan book, My Brilliant Friend, came out in 2012; the second, The Story of a New Name, in 2013. Now the third volume, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay — which zeroes in on Elena and Lila in their roiling mid-20s — has just been published here, and Ferrante is the subject of profiles in publications from Vogue to The New York Times. And yet, despite all the accolades and attention, no one really knows Elena Ferrante, because ”Elena Ferrante” doesn’t exist.
Here’s what is known: The author, who writes under a pseudonym, was born and raised in Naples. Today she lives in northern Italy. She is not so much a recluse, like J.D. Salinger, as she is private. Somehow her anonymity doesn’t smack of pretension or gimmick, but an honest lack of interest in developing any cult of personality. In an era of reality TV and noxious cycles of dubious fame, Ferrante believes the work should stand on its own. She will only submit to interviews over email, going so far as to turn down a meaty profile opportunity in The New Yorker when the magazine insisted on an in-person interview. ”Without reserve,” Ferrante wrote me in an email exchange, ”I can say that my entire identity is in the books I write.”
The Neapolitan books reek of lived moments, and when asked about the series’ inspiration Ferrante said she intentionally named one of her main characters after her pseudonym. ”I gave my name to the narrator to make my job easier,” she wrote. ”Anyone who writes knows that the most complicated thing is the rendering of events and characters in such a way that they are not realistic but real. In order for this to happen it is necessary to believe in the story one is working on…. I had a friend whom I cared for very much, and I began from that experience. But real events don’t count much when one writes; at most they are like getting shoved while out on the street.”
Elena Ferrante is in fact a she, despite persistent rumors in the Italian press that the author is male, including juicy speculation that she’s really Italian novelist and screenwriter Domenico Starnone. The suggestion that Ferrante could be a man seems ludicrous. From 2005’s The Days of Abandonment, an artful rage of a novel about a middle-aged woman reeling from the sudden news that her husband is leaving her and their children, to her Neapolitan books, Ferrante brings an unforgiving clarity to the female experience. It’s not that male writers haven’t created dynamic women since time began, but rarely is such exquisite attention paid to a woman’s relationship with other women, or their children, who both connect them to and distract them from the world. ”To me it’s so apparent that it can’t possibly be a man,” says Ferrante’s American publisher, Kent Carroll, who has never met or spoken with the author. ”But I was at a dinner not long ago with two very well-known authors who had this big bet on whether it’s a man or a woman. I was so taken aback that these really smart people who had obviously read and liked Elena’s books would even ask that question. Like, please!”
Neither Carroll — whose small press, Europa Editions, is the sister company to Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O — nor Goldstein has much contact with the author. Goldstein says she has emailed directly with her just once in their many years of collaboration. Only her Italian husband-and-wife publishers know her true identity. ”If I were to close my eyes I would suspect she’s an older woman, maybe 60,” says Carroll. ”I picture an attractive woman who dresses well, but demure. There’s a confidence, self-confidence, a sense of place. The person writing these novels is very comfortable with her skills and talents.”
Ferrante’s U.S. publisher sighs sometimes at her unwillingness to promote herself. ”I think it would benefit her and her books in many ways,” says Carroll. ”But I understand and honor her decision.” Nor does it seem necessary. Ferrante’s popularity is surging, buoyed by the strength of her books alone. Carroll says they printed 25,000 copies of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, as compared with a 5,000-copy first printing for My Brilliant Friend.
I asked Ferrante if she ever struggled with her insistence on a private life, if she ever had ”a flash of ego that made you want to throw open your window and yell, ‘It is I who’ve created this world!”’ Her response was a wonderful smackdown: ”Your image of the window is amusing. My home is on the upper floors, I’m afraid of heights, and my ego gladly avoids leaning out the window.”