Why it helps that we don't know who Elena Ferrante is when we get lost in her fictional world
Who is Elena Ferrante? Nobody really knows. Well, except for her publisher, her literary agent, and possibly, her best friend. For the rest of the world, Elena Ferrante is just a name. Or, to put it more accurately, just a pseudonym. The real woman behind it remains a mystery.
There are some things about Ferrante that we can guess at. She is an Italian. She grew up in Naples. She came of age around the 1960s. She has some experience of growing up poor and unprivileged. And she has struggled to play the traditional roles required of women.
But all that is pure conjecture. We don't know anything about her for certain. All we can do is extrapolate from her books to imagine what kind of life she must have led, what her life experiences were, and how they shaped her as a woman and a writer. So we imagine that she is a woman who had difficulty coming to terms with what society (and her family) demanded of a wife and mother -- or indeed a daughter. We imagine that she struggled with romantic love. We imagine that she broke some hearts and has hers broken in turn.
Despite speculation to the contrary, I for one am quite sure that Elena Ferrante is a woman. Only a woman could have mined her interior life so ruthlessly; only a woman could so perfectly express feminine angst; and only a woman could understand the complicated relationships that exist between women.
But Ferrante is not just any woman. She is one who has become the voice of an entire generation of women who came of age in a pre-feminist era, who had to fight for their education, their right to work outside the home, the right not to be reduced to their primary relationships, the right to be seen as individuals in their own right, the right not to be seen as a sum of their body parts. Sample this sentence from My Brilliant Friend: “The beauty of mind that Cerullo had from childhood didn’t find an outlet, Greco, and it has all ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she never had it.”
So Ferrante's women rage. They scream (sometimes out loud, sometimes silently). They push against boundaries. They explore their sexuality. They laugh. They cry. They behave badly. They tear down stereotypes. They look at the world around them with unflinching eyes. And they are completely authentic no matter what they do. Their voice is the voice of everywoman. Their thoughts are the ones that we sometimes barely acknowledge to ourselves, leave alone give voice to. They are both light and dark, both good and evil, both sinned against and sinning.
My introduction to Ferrante came via her quartet of Neopolitan novels, which is best described as her tribute to female friendship. It is the bond between Lenu and Lila – the Cerullo and Greco quoted above, two girls growing up in the same poor, deprived, brutish neighbourhood in Naples -- that provides the central framework of a story that takes in their entire lives, beginning from the 1950s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century. The bond between the two women sometimes chafes, sometimes grows loose, sometimes binds them close, and sometimes becomes so tight that it suffocates.
And it is through their story that we see the enormous changes that are occurring in the world around them. You see the world expand through their eyes, as they marry, birth children, make careers, deal with the betrayals of love and the treacheries of life. All of this unfolds through the books following My Brilliant Friend: The Story Of A New Name, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, and The Story Of The Lost Child.
It was after I had devoured the entire quartet that I started on the books in which Ferrante had begun to find her voice and learnt to deploy it with devastating effect. Her first book, Troubling Love, is about a daughter’s search for her dead mother and the discoveries she makes along the way. The Days Of Abandonment plumbs the depths of the despair of a wife whose husband has left her for another woman. And The Lost Daughter tells a tale that most mothers and daughters will see something of themselves in.
It is only when you read her novels that you realise that Ferrante's insistence on anonymity is not some writer's caprice or a brilliant publicity stunt set up by a publishing house but an absolute necessity. It is her anonymity that allows her the freedom to say things that we sometimes find hard to even say to ourselves in the depths of our subconscious mind.
And what freedom it is! She can write about the first fumblings of adolescent love. She can shine a light on the resentment mothers feel towards their children no matter how much they may love them. She can examine the dark eroticism of adultery, as it lurks in shadowy corners. And she can do all this without worrying about anyone drawing parallels or seeking common ground in her own personal life.
Perhaps it is this liberty that allows Ferrante's voice to soar as high as it does. And that is what allows it to speak to us. But don’t take my word for it. From this month on, all of Ferrante’s books are available in India. Read and experience her magic for yourself.