In Italy, a Globally Acclaimed Novelist Lives in Total Anonymity

A rare interview with the Italian author who goes by the pen name Elena Ferrante and whose true identity is known by practically no one.

Somewhere in Italy lives a woman with a big secret and a dual identity. That is, if you accept the premise that the person in question is in fact a woman. Some believe she lives in Turin, in the north. Others insist she lives in the south, in Naples. She should be in her 60s by now, by most accounts. Some speculate that she was once married to a foreigner, perhaps a man from Greece whom she met when she was at college, and that she has a son or daughter. Journalists who’ve tried to trace her say she’s a lecturer in classical studies. The various theories are based on hints about her life scattered throughout her books, which are connected by biographical strands, and on slivers of information provided by the writer herself.

Her true identity is known to just a handful of people, who guard it very carefully: Her picture has never been published, and to interview her, one must go through her Italian literary agent. She gives scant interviews — always by email, and infrequently.

“Everything that can rightfully be invaded are my books,” wrote Elena Ferrante, after consenting to an interview request from Haaretz. “There, inside the cover, you find me as an author with a first name and surname It’s not my pen name that creates interest in my books, but my books that create interest in my pen name. My private life is completely separate from my public presence in the books. No one can invade it.”

This anonymity may be one reason that it’s tempting to think of her books, all written in a brutally candid first-person voice, as resting on autobiographical foundations. Four of her 10 books have been translated into Hebrew to date (all published by Hasifriya Hahadasha). As in Europe and America, they all drew much notice and sold well.

“Troubled Love,” published in Italy in 1992, concerns the fraught relationship between a daughter and her mother, who drowned on her 40-something birthday. “The Days of Abandonment,” first published in 2002, tells the story of Olga, whose husband leaves her after dinner one night. In that novel, Ferrante stunningly turns the domestic drama facing the protagonist into an unemotional, nearly pitiless reckoning about love, motherhood and femininity. “The Lost Daughter” (2006), the next to be published in Hebrew, centers on Leda, a professor living happily in Florence, freed from their neediness demanded by her daughters and the price she paid for motherhood.

The cover of Elena Ferrante's 'The Lost Daughter' (Hebrew translation).
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The latest work to come out in Hebrew is “My Brilliant Friend,” published in Italy in 2011, the first of Ferrante’s four-part series of “Neapolitan Novels”; it has been high on the Israeli best-seller lists for several months. In Italian, and in English, in which the fourth volume was published in September, it was followed by “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and “The Story of the Lost Child.”

These books constitute a grandiose project – nearly 2,000 pages covering the lifelong friendship (and sometime rivalry) of two women: Elena Greco, also known as Lenú, the daughter of a city hall porter who is given a fine education, and Raffaella Cerullo — Lila — the daughter of a shoemaker, whose schooling ended after five years. They grow up in the same crowded, violent neighborhood in 1960s’ Naples, and through the depiction of their lives, the stormy recent history of their homeland and their city, in the clutches of the Mafia, is also conveyed. Although their lives evolve in very different directions, it’s never clear which one of them is “the brilliant friend.”

Ferrante’s work has been translated into more than two dozen languages. The New York Times proclaimed her “one of the great novelists of our time.” Vanity Fair (which recently published a lengthy interview with her) called her “an international sensation.” And according to The Guardian, “To read a Ferrante novel is to feel as if Kafka had written a novel in which Gregor Samsa didn’t turn into a bug, but became constantly aware of his own inner bug-like status – discovering metaphors for this deeper insect identity everywhere he looked.”

Alon Altaras, who translates her books into Hebrew, says, “She’s a demonstratively feminine writer but she manages to make it mythical. It’s more ‘Medea’ than ‘Little Women’ The result is outstanding.”

Friendship between women, a deep and decades-long connection between friends who serve as each other’s muse but are also a critical and sometimes paralyzing force in each other’s lives, is a subject that has barely been examined in literature. One can find rivalries between men, male friendships and mentor-prodigy ties, but this female territory, with its intimate depth, and such a direct and complex depiction of a relationship, of love and admiration with jealousy and animosity occasionally mixed in, is rare.

In one part of “My Brilliant Friend,” when the heroines are 16 years old, Lenú bathes Lila the night before her wedding to a neighborhood thug. The way she regards her friend’s body is an honestly erotic moment, without any looking aside, without any prettification or denial.

The very choice to write about this feels like a feminist move. Was Ferrante aiming to explore virtually unknown literary territory?

“No, I just told a story,” she says. “But I knew there were no solid models from which to draw upon. It’s only recently that women’s writing has begun to give expression to the complexity of a female world in an open polemic with the male tradition. I worked the same way I did with the other books I have published.”

Meaning?

“When I’m telling a story, I have just one objective: the truth. The true experience I make use of to give substance to a story is in a raw state. To translate it into words is to define it, to give it literary form. It’s a crucial process that might, however, cause the truth to be lost. So all of my effort is focused on this: achieving writing that does not forgo truth for the sake of attractive form. I prefer a tone that is true over a text that is very carefully polished but false.”

Women ride bikes in Cesenatico, Italy, in 1960.
Erich Lessing / Magnum Photos

In an interview last spring in the Paris Review, Ferrante was asked if a woman has to work harder in order for her writing not to be dismissed as intended “for women.” She explained that, as a girl, it was her understanding that a good book must have a male hero. Then later, when she began writing her own stories about girls, “the idea remained — indeed, it grew stronger — that the greatest narrators were men and that one had to learn to narrate like them. I didn’t want to write like Madame de La Fayette or Jane Austen or the Bronts but like Defoe or Fielding or Flaubert or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or even Hugo ... That phase lasted a long time, until I was in my early 20s, and it left profound effects.”

Today, she says, “My feminine dignity is drawn not from literature but rather from feminist thought. But I am not militant, and I do not think that a story should be the presentation of an ideology. A story succeeds if it is able to establish its own autonomy, if it is able to affect even my beliefs, as its author. A story is not a manifesto; it’s an attempt to translate the inherent disorder of the human experience into words.”

Ferrante writes in a naked, practically brutal way about difficult female situations that are not often spoken about, such as her depiction of an abandoned woman who obsessively fixates on her husband’s betrayal, or the sexual desires he may be fulfilling with his lover.

Women don’t usually lay bare their lives and most intimate relationships in this way.

“I detest the clichés within which the female experience has traditionally been confined. A book should put those aside, it should eschew convenience, it should shatter the often frivolous or foolish molds that have been assigned to us. Then it can go out and seek an audience.”

I guess the anonymity was meant to make that part easier on you.

“The knowledge that I won’t be going out there with it [on promotional jaunts] makes me feel very free while I’m writing it.”

Asked by the Paris Review for her definition of literary sincerity, Ferrante answered: “It’s the torment and, at the same time, the engine of every literary project. The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be: What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But the more pressing question is: What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true.

“It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do: These events truly happened, it’s my real life, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording ...”

The cover of Elena Ferrante's 'Troubling Love' (Hebrew translation).
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A decade separated the publication of “Troubling Love” and “The Days of Abandonment,” which was an instant best seller upon its release in Italian in 2002. Describing the years in which she didn’t publish, Ferrante told the Paris Review: “The writing of ‘Troubling Love’ was for me a small miracle that came only after years of practice. It seemed to me I had achieved a style that was solid, lucid, very controlled, and yet open to sudden breakdowns. The satisfaction didn’t last, however. It diminished, then it vanished. It took me 10 years to separate my writing from that specific book, to turn my prose into a tool that I could use elsewhere, like a good solid chain that can pull up the full bucket from the very bottom of the well. I worked a lot, but only with ‘The Days of Abandonment’ did I feel that I’d written another publishable text.”

‘Threshold of consciousness’

While she was busy grappling with her writing, readers kept wondering who she really was. Over the years, various theories were floated – that Ferrante was actually a man, or not just one person but a pseudonym for a secret group of writers. Italian writer Domenico Starnone was repeatedly cited as a possible identity, and other suspects, also male, were also mentioned. Those who claim Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of a male writer have primarily been male critics or writers.

The other side of this discourse is the claim that Ferrante remains anonymous because her writing is autobiographical. “I draw on my experience,” says Ferrante, “but I’m not writing an autobiography. An autobiography promises the reader historic truth. Using personal experience in a story aims for the truth that is in fiction. These themes do occupy a lot of space in my books, but there are other things I care deeply about too.”

What do you think about the claims that you’re not a woman, that you’re actually a man, or a group of men? And how do you feel about the attempt to attribute the work of a female writer, even if anonymous, to a male writer?

“What can I tell you? Even today, in every field, only male excellence is perceived as universal. Women only gain recognition for their ability within the confines of their gender. If they break these boundaries, they suddenly lose their personal traits, they must be men. It’s as if there’s a symbolic male gender, in which any woman who demonstrates brilliance in a way other than how men think a woman should show her brilliance, is immediately placed.”

In 2003, as curiosity about the “Ferrante mystery” surged, her Italian publisher decided to publish a collection of essays, interviews and letters by the author. What she says there about writing and choosing anonymity echoes what she says on the subject now as well: “In literary invention, you actually must be as honest as possible,” she wrote in one letter. “For me, the challenge of writing affects my whole body. When I finish a book, I feel as if I’ve just been through a meticulous body search, and all I want at that moment is to resume being myself; with my thoughts, my language, my relationships with people. The work is the thing that becomes public property, and it contains everything I have to say. Why should anyone care about the personality of the book’s author?”

Asked about her depiction of the relationship between the two friends in her books, and how familiar it is to her, Ferrante replies, “I always only tell what I know or I think I know. But I only feel that I’m on the right path when I see that I’ve crossed my threshold of consciousness. What I mean is that, the more passionately I write, the more I find that the story is moving beyond my understanding. That’s what happened in the description of the relationship between Lenú and Lila.”

About the love-hate relationship they have, the author says: “The essential relationships in our lives are both invigorating and frustrating. They give us strength and bring us down, they console us and torment us. The indispensability of the other person limits us, and also spurs an impulse for rebellion and escape. An impulse that weakens, however, the moment we realize that, rather than gain independence, all we’ve brought really brought upon ourselves is an unbearable emptiness.”

What is the secret of her writing’s appeal? Why are so many Israelis, Brits, Americans and others keen to read Ferrante’s portrayals of the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of the Italian women in her stories? What is so mesmerizing about the violent milieu of Naples that she depicts? And why do the domestic dramas that interest Ferrante captivate such a wide audience?

These questions are most apt considering the way she crafted her Neapolitan novels. “The choice to tell a story of two women from Naples; to spread this out over four books, as in the 19th century; to choose a linear writing technique, as in classical literature; to do this in serial fashion, with the world described being a very local one, a very particular version of Naples; and to do all this at a time when it’s said that people hardly read anymore — this is a profound political-literary act that asks you to change your consumer habits and your reading habits,” says Alon Altaras.

“It’s wonderful and surprising that there’s demand for the second volume to come out right away, but people want to keep reading. The success of this project, in England, America and France, is quite astonishing and against all the odds,” he adds.

So what’s the real reason for this success?

Altaras: “‘My Brilliant Friend’ makes you love reading, it makes you wait for the next book. You’re captive to this character. It’s revolutionary in its simplicity.”

He notes that although she is a well-known writer in her homeland and her books sell well there, Ferrante is far from being Italy’s most prominent writer. Abroad, however, she has found huge success. In Israel alone, tens of thousands of copies of each of her books have been sold.

Dr. Uri S. Cohen of Tel Aviv University’s literature department says, “At least in the world of Italian literature, which has been in a state of crisis for quite a while, Ferrante is perceived more as a notable success with respect to the crisis and less as a success in her own right. The most popular genre in Italian literature is the detective genre There’s a certain snobbism regarding her success, as happens when someone’s success is ‘too big,’ and a tendency to label her work as conservative literature, as sentimental novels. Not that her writing isn’t admired, but there’s a wariness and an inclination to view her as an outgrowth of the literary crisis and not as innovative.”

So she’s not being recognized just for what she is?

Cohen: “Correct, but this has to do with the outlook of a literary establishment that’s fairly chauvinistic. It’s controlled by men and men’s literary forms. Ferrante is very aware of the way literature like hers is perceived and she writes about this. She’s constantly having to contend with the ease with which some literature is classified as women’s literature, and this is not necessarily taken as a sign of quality.

“Part of her astounding success has been with people who don’t usually read literature. It’s writing that appeals to lovers of stories and not necessarily lovers of literature. Perhaps this indicates that world literature is suffering from a shortage of good stories. This is certainly the case in Italy, where quality has been associated with the avant-garde and breaking conventions. Ferrante has none of that. The only thing she is trying to break is the hegemony of the male voice. I love her writing, especially her early books, which I found to be extraordinary at doing this simple thing: telling a story.”

Where would you situate her on the spectrum of Italian writers?

“If you think about Elsa Morante or Anna Maria Ortese, there’s a conformity of the female voice, from the subconscious. Morante does something different and clearly feminine. [Ferrante’s] a center of resistance to something much more decentralized – male control and language – without the world having become any different really Her anonymity gives her a subversive and independent feminine position, and I think the difficulty of being able to say just where she fits is part of her appeal, in addition to the fact that she talks like a real person and writes about people, and their emotional worlds, as they really are.”

Italian Jewish novelist Elsa Morante.
MP/ Leemage

Cohen mentions another popular Neapolitan writer, Erri De Luca, notes what really sets Ferrante apart from him. “Both are tied to Naples, an interesting place within Italy, one that still sustains a rich literary world that far exceeds its present importance as a city in the Italian economy. De Luca is a product of the political violence of the 1970s; that’s his identity. His existential crisis led him to literature. The historic violence is related in the first person. Ferrante also writes about Naples but in a way that removes the self from the story. What remains is a literary voice, not a biography. People find in these books a voice that speaks to them in a much more intimate and direct way, precisely because of this absence.”

But this intimacy and directness does not lead to personal revelation. In an essay in The Guardian, Ferrante described the effect it had on her as a girl when she discovered that Jane Austen did not put her name on her novels, but only wrote that they were penned “by a lady.” Asked by a foreign journalist once to describe her own appearance, Ferrante responded with scorn.

“One of my theories is that all this hiding might have to do with this sort of problem,” says Altaras. “Maybe she has some physical defect? Maybe she really would rather not be seen? Maybe she wants to say what she has to say in a way that frees her from the personal and allows her to say something bigger.”