In 1991, when her first novel, L’amore molesto (Troubling Love), was about to be published, its author wrote a letter to her Italian publishers. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t … Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.”
The least expensive, possibly, but certainly the most enigmatic, and by now the most successful. Since then, seven of her novels, published under the pen name Elena Ferrante, have been translated into English, and she has become the best-known Italian writer of literary fiction alive today. In September, the fourth and concluding book of her Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, was published. Sales of the Neapolitan quartet have now reached 750,000 in the US and are approaching 250,000 in the UK. Foreign editions stand at 39.
As Ferrante’s fame grew, so did the speculation: were the books really written by Sandro Ferri, her Italian publisher, or perhaps by his wife and business partner Sandra? Was Ferrante a man? (Unlikely, if you’ve read the books.) Perhaps they were written by her English translator, Ann Goldstein?
In that early letter, Ferrante left one avenue open: “I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit that to the indispensable minimum.” Last month she agreed to give one of her rare interviews for this special issue of the magazine.
Through these occasional communications we have learnt the basics of her life. She was born and grew up in Naples; the period covered by her novels suggests a childhood in the 1950s. She studied classics and has been, or is, married. She has children (she told The New York Times that her writing “often came into conflict with my love for them”).
In Italy there was a 10-year gap before the release of her second novel, The Days of Abandonment. Its opening lines — “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table” — dragged her readers straight into the violent emotional catharsis that was to follow.
But it was in 2013, soon after My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels, was published, that James Wood, The New Yorker’s literary critic, wrote the piece that confirmed Ferrante’s gifts: “Her novels are intensely, violently personal … they seem to dangle bristling key chains of confession before the unsuspecting reader.” The material “is often shockingly candid: child abuse, divorce, motherhood, wanting and not wanting children, the tedium of sex, the repulsions of the body, the narrator’s desperate struggle to retain a cohesive identity within a traditional marriage.” These subjects would be woven through the three Neapolitan novels that followed. At their centre are two friends, Lenù and Lila, who grow up together in Naples. Told by Lenù, who becomes a writer, their friendship plays out through a cast of characters whose complex relationships lead readers through decades of struggle, emerging feminism and social change.
And so Ferrante’s books have become a literary obsession, particularly among women, who find the emotional accuracy of her writing so true to experience it feels like their own.
When did you start to write?
In late adolescence.
You have said that for a long time you wrote without the intention of publishing, or even without having others read what you were writing. What function did writing have for you in the beginning?
I wrote to learn how to write. I thought I had things to say but at every attempt, depending on the mood I was in, I felt I lacked either talent or adequate technical skills. I generally preferred the second hypothesis, the first scared me.
Your novels are concerned with women’s lives, and with how women react to men, both privately and in society. Was this your aim when you decided to publish — to speak to women about women’s experiences?
No, I didn’t have a plan then, and I still don’t. The only reason I decided to have Troubling Love published was that I felt I had written a book I could permanently detach from myself without later regretting it.
There was a 10-year gap between your first book, Troubling Love, and your second, The Days of Abandonment. Was there a particular reason for that gap?
Actually, there was no gap. I wrote an awful lot in those 10 years but nothing I felt I could trust. The stories I wrote were overworked, very controlled but without truth.
There are very few positive male characters in your books. Most of the men are weak or boastful or absent or bullies. Is that a reflection of the society you have grown up in, or does it reflect the imbalance of power between men and women in wider society? Has that imbalance improved or changed in recent years?
I grew up in a world where it seemed normal that men (fathers, brothers, boyfriends) had the right to hit you in order to correct you, to teach you how to be a woman, ultimately for your own good. Luckily today much has changed but I still think the men who can really be trusted are a minority. Maybe this is because the milieu that shaped me was backward. Or maybe (and this is what I tend to believe) it’s because male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level. And, in the real world, too many are punished, even with death, for their insubordination.
Your novels seem to be concerned with boundaries — emotional, geographical, social — and what happens when those boundaries are crossed or broken down. Is that something that particularly affects women of a certain age or class, or does it apply to all?
The awareness of limits keeps weighing down on women — I’m talking about women in general. This isn’t a problem while we’re dealing with self-regulation: it’s important to set limits for oneself. The problem is that we live within limits set by others, and we are disapproving of ourselves when we fail to respect them. Male boundary-breaking does not automatically entail negative judgments, it’s a sign of curiosity and courage. Female boundary-breaking, especially when it is not undertaken under the guidance or supervision of men, is still disorientating: it is loss of femininity, it is excess, perversion, disease.
You refer to characters “liquefying” or “dissolving” as a way of describing emotional breakdown. Is that a feeling you recognise — in yourself? In others?
I have seen it in my mother, in myself, in many women. We experience too many ties that choke our desires and ambitions. The modern world subjects us to pressures that at times we are not able to bear.
The narrators in your novels find motherhood difficult. It devours them, reduces them, they long to escape it, and when they do, they feel liberated. Do you feel women would be stronger if they didn’t have to bear the burdens of motherhood?
No, that’s not the point. The point is what we tell ourselves about motherhood and child-rearing. If we keep talking about it in an idyllic way, like in many handbooks on motherhood, we will continue to feel alone and guilty when we brush up against the frustrating aspects of being a mother.
The task of a woman writer today is not to stop at the pleasures of the pregnant body, of birth, of bringing up children, but to delve truthfully into the darkest depth.
The Neapolitan novels have similarities of character and plot to your three earlier novels. Are you, in some ways, telling the same story?
Not the same story but definitely the same features of a single malady. Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all.
Should we assume the story to be your story — as readers clearly do — or is that a failing of imagination on their part, a symptom of the modern trend for always looking for the author in the work?
The four volumes of the Neapolitan novels are my story, sure, but only in the sense that I am the one who has given it the form of a novel and to have used my life experiences to inject truth into literary invention.
If I had wanted to recount my own business, I would have established a different pact with the reader, I would have signalled I was writing an autobiography. I have not chosen an autobiographical path, nor will I choose it in the future, because I am convinced that fiction, when it works, is more charged with truth.
Could you explain why you decided to keep your identity hidden — to maintain an “absence”, as you put it, from the business of publishing and promoting your books?
I believe that, today, failing to protect writing by guaranteeing it an autonomous space, far from the demands of the media and the marketplace, is a mistake. My own small cultural battle, now two decades long, is mostly aimed at readers. I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to, not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life. Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip. Let’s restore authentic centrality to the books themselves and, if it’s appropriate, discuss the possible uses of idle gossip as promotion.
Do you feel that fame will always cause damage to a writer’s work — or to the work of any creative person?
I don’t know. I simply believe that today it’s wrong to let one’s person become better known than one’s work.
Do members of your family and friends know you are the author of your novels? Are there people you feel would be upset, or would make your life difficult, if your identity as the author of your novels were known?
At first I worried I would cause suffering to the people I care for. Now I no longer feel the need to protect my loved ones. They know writing is my life and they leave me be in my little corner. The only condition is that I should do nothing to make them feel ashamed.
How do you work with your English-language translator Ann Goldstein? Can you assess whether the voice that comes in your translated works is your “true” voice?
I trust her completely. I believe she has done everything possible to accommodate my Italian into her English with the best intentions.
One of your self-criticisms — about The Days of Abandonment — is that you fear some parts might have “only the appearance of good writing”. What, for you, is the difference between “good” writing and “true” writing — or at least, the kind of writing you feel you produce at your best?
A page is well written when the labour and pleasure of truthful narration supplant any other concern, including a concern with formal elegance. I belong to the category of writers who throw out the final draft and keep the rough when this practice ensures a higher degree of authenticity.
You have said, talking about women writers today, that “we have to dig deep into our difference, using advanced tools”. Are there other writers who do that? Could you give some examples of women writers you admire — or writers in general?
The list would be too long — spare me this task. The present landscape of women’s writing is wide and very lively. I read a lot and the pages I love most are those that make me exclaim, “Here’s something I would never be able to do.” With those pages I am putting together my own personal anthology of regret.
I know that many women write to you after reading your books. Do men?
At first there were more men than women. Now women outnumber them.
When you have finally published a book, do you need a period of recuperation, of recovery? Do you have fallow periods?
No. There is always something on my mind that bothers me, and writing about it puts me in a good mood.
You have said that to reveal your identity now would be “deplorably incongruent”. But do you nevertheless feel under pressure from your success? How does it feel when you walk into a bookshop, or an airport, and see a wall of your books on sale?
I carefully avoid such spectacles. Publication has always made me anxious. My text reproduced in thousands of copies strikes me as a form of presumption, makes me feel guilty.
Do you feel that your identity is gradually being winkled out? To unmask you now, for some literary journalists, would be considered a scoop.
A scoop? What nonsense. Who would be interested in what remains of me outside my books? The attention paid to them seems too much already.
You have said that Lenù — the character in the Neapolitan novels — could not exist as a writer without the character of Lila. Is that true for you too?
I perceive writing as if motivated and fed by the accidental bumping of my life against the lives of others. In this sense, yes, if I became impermeable, if other people no longer placed disarray within me, I think I would stop writing.
Are you writing another book?
Yes. But — right now — I doubt I will publish it.
Interview translated by Daniela Petracco. Elena Ferrante’s novels are published by Europa Editions