Beyond the Best Seller: The Brilliance of Elena Ferrante
By Icaro Carvalho & Raquel Zandomeneghi
Achieving a high literary standard while maintaining an accessible and readable text is definitely not easy nor common. In over 1700 pages, writer Elena Ferrante invites readers of her four-part “Neapolitan novels'' to follow protagonist Lenu's life in a classic bildungsroman: a story from early childhood until old age. The Italian writer, who has chosen to not make her name, face or any other solid information about her personal life public, is now one of the most famous writers in the world. Her books are constantly discussed, photographed and shared by celebrities and personalities. This international success rose soon after the 2012 publishing of My Brilliant Friend, the first novel of the Tetralogy, and escalated until it was dubbed "Ferrante Fever.'' This fever sold millions of copies, started an HBO series, and expanded the myth around the writer behind the pseudonym.
In 2019, the British newspaper The Guardian ranked My Brilliant Friend as the 11th best novel of the century. Many critics have addressed the excellence of Ferrante’s writing above her commercial success. Best-sellers tend to be optimistic, seek the very profitable "self-help market," and receive mediocre reception from critics. None of this applies to Ferrante's novels. Her novels are, more than anything else, hopeless, imperfect and raw. The Tetralogy revolves around two childhood friends, Lenu and Lila. Lenu, who is also the narrator of the novels, continually reinforces that her relationship with Lila has been complicated and rough since their first moments of bonding in elementary school. The plot follows Lenu leaving to Naples, Italy to seek higher education and Lila staying in their village to get married and lead a more traditional life.
As mentioned, Ferrante's writing style is far from what one would expect from a best-selling book. It forces the reader through countless conflicting feelings. There are moments in which the narrative causes exceptionally visceral discomfort by exposing thoughts that we have all had. Cruel and selfish moments portrayed by the characters communicate deeply with our inner selves, in a way that shuts us out of our comfort zone. We connect with Lenu and Lila even in their worst, most egoistic thoughts; we envy and feel disgust toward characters as if we really knew them. This is one of the reasons people connect so much with Ferrante's writing. It feels like an autobiographical work because it has every element we would expect from typical autobiographical memories. Yet, since we know it is fiction, we tend to take the actions in the novels personally, reacting to them as if we were the ones affected by them. When Lenu has good grades or receives compliments, for example, we feel proud—as if we were part of her journey.
We are used to expecting overexposure nowadays; we assume famous people will naturally provide extra content during interviews, round-table discussions or even on social media. It is now frustrating to close a book and know that there is nothing else after that final dot. The massive number of theories about Ferrante’s true identity seems to be a reflection of this moment of overexposure and the need to idolize a figure, to demand that she must enter the social game and expose herself, even if just a little bit. Would "Ferrante Fever" be so intense if we knew the author’s identity? We believe it would undoubtedly happen, since its strength seems to be in the narrative itself, but the mysterious identity appears to be an important ingredient to her success.
Ferrante has established a unique style throughout her career, creating a vivid world for her stories to take place. Her narratives usually center around the same themes and physical places, as can be seen in The Lost Daughter, The Days of Abandonment, the Neapolitan Tetralogy and, in her last book, The Lying Life of Adults. Naples, maternity and relationships with the city, men, family and other girls and women are typical subjects of her prose. In The Lying Life of Adults, which can also be categorized as a coming-of-age story, searching for one's own identity is a central discussion, as in the Neapolitan Novels. If Lenu feels displaced and remote in her environment, Ferrante in her newest novel presents the contrary: Giovanna, a character that is indeed part of Neapolitan society, needs to leave her comfort zone in order to descend to the lowest social classes and find her own roots.
In Ferrante’s novels, Naples is a dangerous place able to deeply affect the characters in a naturalistic way. In this Naples, the environment directly influences how people behave. Described as brutal, hostile and confusing, the city inflicts the same on those inside its boundaries. Madness and brutality, especially involving women, are common in Ferrante's tetralogy. Even though Lenu becomes an elegant and well-educated woman, brutalistic actions and impulsive desires never leave her entirely. There are characters that embody mental health issues, others who cannot communicate with minimum eloquence and some who are forever portrayed with semi-animalistic behavior and explosive temperaments. It happens in the tetralogy with Lenu or Melina and their mental breakdowns, or even Lila and Immacolata Greco who, in an attempt to protect themselves in a patriarchal society and avoid persecution, choose to be as bitter and reactive as possible. This same Naples-formed temperament occurs in The Lying Life of Adults, with Vittoria, and also in The Days of Abandonment, with Olga.
While Ferrante has found pop culture success, it is important to note that "Ferrante Fever" also exists in academic and research contexts. Elena Ferrante, uma longa experiência de ausência ("Elena Ferrante, a long experience of absence" in a literal translation from Portuguese), written by Fabiane Secches and published in 2020, is a book that had its starting-point at the University of São Paulo. It analyses the first books published by Ferrante and, more thoroughly, the Neapolitan novels, being one of the most solid pieces of evidence on how Ferrante's best-selling novels are, in fact, much more than pulp fiction. Fabiane Secches, who writes for major Brazilian literary journals, expresses: "Although Ferrante's writing gives us the impression that the reading will flow smoothly, it is perhaps our own internal difficulties that we will end up facing."
Thinking of the Tetralogy as an autobiographical journey helps us to understand the commotion around the real person behind the pseudonym. Elena Ferrante's writing is not enough anymore. When interviewed by The Guardian, Ferrante stated that books do not need their authors once they are finished and published. However, we, the readers, want to know the real author. We want to know which events are real, who influenced the characters and how similar Elena Ferrante and Lenu Greco are. We get so involved in the story that we end up clambering for more information that only could come from outside sources, from the real world, or from the author herself.
There is more to come for the "Ferrante universe." There are new seasons coming in the HBO series, a new series by Netflix and a film adaptation of The Lost Daughter directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, which will star Olivia Colman and Paul Mescal. The fever will continue to increase, but that's probably a good sign.