You’ve probably heard of Elena Ferrante. If you are a person who reads books, you must have. Her name has been whispered in bookstores. It has been thrown around by literary journalists. It has been enthusiastically brandished in the pages of almost every newspaper and website from the New Yorker to the Independent. If you’ve been into a bookshop recently, you’ve likely seen her books in windows and on tables. Maybe you’ve even read her.
However much or little you do know about her, there is no hiding from the fact she is fast becoming one of the biggest, most iconic authors writing today. And it’s not just us that thinks so…
Everyone is crazy for Ferrante right now. She’s been called “the foremost modern writer in Italy – and the world” by The Sunday Times. She’s been hailed as “one of the great novelists of our time” by The New York Times. She’s been described as ‘Tolstoyan.’ The reading world is going absolutely nuts for her, and in the run up to her next book, the final Neapolitan novel that will be published by the very excellent Europa Editions in September, it doesn’t look like the hype is slowing down. ‘Ferrante Fever’ has become a thing. It even has its own hashtag.
The Invisible Woman
One of the most remarkable things about the Ferrante story is that throughout this abundant coverage, Ferrante has managed to remain completely, entirely elusive. Nobody – with the exception of her Italian publisher and the people close to her – has any idea who Elena Ferrante actually is.
These days, a writer being so popular without showing their face is quite a feat. It’s not like the old times. Now that the internet exists, readers have become used to matching a face with a name and a novel. We listen to interviews, read articles, follow our favourite writers on social media, hunt them down at readings and signings like groupies. So when an author practically cannonballs their way into the public consciousness with only a few book jackets and a nice font to identify them, you can’t help but be curious. Why is she remaining hidden? Won’t she at least go on the radio? What is she so worried about – people are going crazy for her books?
It’s mysterious, and it’s also brilliant. Ferrante becomes almost a piece of fiction in herself. Conspiracy theories are piling up; is she the wife of an Italian politician? Is she actually an anarchist husband-wife team? Is she a man? (That one is bound to have Mary Shelley groaning in her grave). The speculation is endless. Some people have even made fake Facebook profiles, claiming to be Ferrante.
Her identity seems to be an obsession for some people, which is understandable because her books are so incredibly good…
Her novels are intense and powerful. Each one is written in the first person, in the voice of a woman who is overcoming some obstacle or else climbing out of the oppression of being a woman in the first place. Her narrators do not shy away from sexual jealousy, lust and desire, nor do they hide their shame. Her Neapolitan novels are especially popular; set in post-war Italy, they centre on the friendship between Elena and Lila, two women looking for success and independence from the wreckage of the war. They’ve been labelled feminist; deeply personal; radical. As Barnes and Noble puts it, “it is Ferrante’s ability to capture both the mirror and the woman standing before it that makes her a writer to be reckoned with.” When you read a quote like that, you can really see why there’s so much fuss. And it’s not unfounded. Her books are excellent.
It’s rare, too, for a writer to conjure so much buzz on such a large body of work. More often than not, a novel comes along that knocks the socks off the reading public. We get obsessed with the author of that book, and then it’s done. We move on. But with Ferrante, there is no single one of her books that has shot her into the limelight. It’s her entire output that’s causing a stir. Remarkably, she chooses not to be present to absorb all the praise and attention. Although she does have some pretty great things to say…
“I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” – Elena Ferrante
Ferrante has only given a handful of interviews; the most notable with the Paris Review (she conducts these interviews through her publisher or via email). We know that she grew up in or near Naples. We know her thoughts on writing, in that she writes for the reader: “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.” And we know a bit about why she is choosing to remain hidden.
Some of the most revealing moments are found in letters to her publisher. When talking about her thoughts on publicity after finishing Troubling Love, she had this to say: “I’ve already done enough for this long story: I’ve written it. If the book is worth something, it should be enough.” In another letter, this time to her editor, she wrote: “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.”
A brave attitude in the age of the internet, and one that makes her all the more alluring!
It’s clear that Ferrante Fever is at its peak. And with The Story of the Lost Child due out in September, followed closely by Fragments, a collection of thoughts, essays and interviews due out from Europa in January 2016, it’s unlikely the buzz will die down any time soon.
If haven’t read her yet, do so! Head down to your local bookstore and pick up a Ferrante bundle. You won’t be disappointed.
We’ll be writing more about Ferrante over the next few months, so be sure to leave a review or get involved in the conversation!