Is she as fantastic up close as she seems on paper? Is she a big, fat, talentless phony? Why does she keep to herself? Is she, in fact, a man?
The rumors that have surrounded the identity of author Elena Ferrante are not unlike petty teenage gossip, but that hasn’t kept them from circulating, especially this month, as the final book in her critically lauded Neapolitan novels has been released in English. If you haven’t read the stories, you should, and if you haven’t heard of them yet, you will soon.
For those unacquainted: they relate the fraught history of Naples, from the 1960s to today, through the lens of a friendship between two women, Lila and narrator Lenu. While Lenu, through a mixture of luck and tenacity, manages to free herself from her poor upbringing by studying relentlessly, succeeding in school, and eventually publishing a short novel about an emotionally charged, youthful summer, Lila’s path is rockier.
Though a brilliantly creative thinker, she stops going to school after fifth grade. She continues to read books, but her true education is formed via a tendency to take deliberate risks. She designs a stunning shoe for her parents’ shop; she marries and gives birth young; she leaves a rotting marriage for newfound, passion-fueled love; she works in a sausage factory; she learns, in the early '80s, how to design computer programs; she remains inextricably involved in her childhood neighborhood’s affairs.
The pair remains close yet competitive throughout their lives; Lila’s brusque manner and keen mind fueling Lenu’s storytelling ambitions.
When Lila says something hurtful to Lenu, we’re given access to the myriad responses she considers, and then, finally, the response she chooses to articulate. We’re given access both to how the friends communicate, and, in much greater detail, how Lenu wishes they communicated, or believes they might communicate in the future. These details are what make the stories feel so intimate. And, they may be why readers are clamoring to unveil the author’s true identity.
In a recent, rare interview, writer Elissa Schappell devotes a chunk of the questions to the author’s decision to conceal her identity. “Why would an author -- especially one so successful and critically acclaimed as you are -- choose to remain anonymous?” asks Schappell. “By choosing to keep details of your identity secret [you have] in a sense, erased yourself," she adds earlier. Ferrante punched back curtly: “No, if you write and publish you are hardly erasing yourself.”
Bored with speculations about her identity, Ferrante continually steers questions towards the themes of her work, and rightly so. According to the author, her choice to liberate herself “from the anxiety of notoriety" has helpted her to establish “a space that is free, where [she] feels active and present.”
By removing herself from the fast cycle of fame and promotion, Ferrante protects her particular way of telling stories -- one that happens to be in short supply lately. One of the many virtues of her novels, aside from their ability to perfectly capture the ebbs and flows of nonromantic relationships, is that they are paced slowly, as life is paced. Years are compressed into pages, but a summer can occupy half of an installment -- especially a summer that sticks out as memorable in the narrator’s mind. So, to reflect on a Ferrante novel is to reflect on a portion of your own life -- single conversations or evenings rise to the surface, and the rest stays obscured beneath it.
And we should be thankful for this accomplishment -- for our ability to bask in her stories, carefully crafted by an ambitious narrator with a life of intense focus. We should, as Ferrante does in interviews, return to the themes of the story, rather than worrying about the story of the author’s personal life.
In the stories, too, themes of disappearance resonate. While Lenu frets about her legacy as her children read from her earlier works in theatrical, critical tones, Lila desires nothing more than to observe without recording, without leaving a trace. We learn from the first pages of the first book that she’s managed to disappear -- a feat Lenu, who’s characterized at times as vain, is puzzled by.
So, should we assume Elena Ferrante has led a life parallel to that of Lenu, the studious, hardworking narrator who rises to the status of a public intellectual who’d be prolific on Twitter, or a life more like Lila’s -- one devoted to observation, to honesty, to telling heartfelt stories?
The answer is neither, and both. Both characters were created by a single author; both exist because their stories were written down and published. And this is enough.
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