There are good books, there are great books, and then there are books that cause a visceral reaction—ones that defy language and culture, demand reprints, and become a hashtag. Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan Series (four books total) has not only sold millions of copies, it’s currently being made into a 32-part miniseries for HBO. Yet, despite the critical acclaim, commercial success, and TV adaptation, the true identity of one of the most distinguished voices in contemporary literature remains a mystery to both her fans and the publishing world at large. Writing under a pseudonym and forgoing the traditional book promotion campaign of signings, tours, interviews, and live talks, Ferrante has managed to maintain her anonymity amidst a flurry of interest and intrigue, adding a touch of mystery to her already compelling stories.
Ferrante’s first novels were published in the early aughts. Though her success seems like it sprang up overnight, a loyal fan base was culled in her native Italy for years; it wasn’t until 2005 that she was translated and published in the US with Europa Editions, a small, independent publishing house. Before coming onto the literary scene, Europa had a wish list of authors it wanted to work with. Not surprisingly, Ferrante was at the very top. Luckily for Europa—and American readers—Ferrante went on to become its first published author with The Days of Abandonment in 2005.
“She’s very much a part of the publishing house’s DNA,” said Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa and Ferrante’s English-language editor. “She’s one of the writers that we really thought could be one of our lead authors.”
The Days of Abandonment was followed by Troubling Love (2006) and The Lost Daughter (2008), but it wasn’t until My Brilliant Friend, published in Italy in 2011 and by Europa in 2012, that “Ferrante fever,” as it’s been coined, officially began. A fever that, not since J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, has captivated so many people, left readers hungry, delirious, and in a real state of desire to read. Read with abandonment, with fervor, shut themselves up in rooms, ignore calls, and just live in the moment, through Ferrante’s words.
At the center of the series is a consuming and highly complex friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two young Italian girls who meet for the first time in elementary school. In the first book, we quickly understand the nature of their friendship, as told from the point of view of Elena: “Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad.”
My Brilliant Friend begins in the present with a phone call from Lila’s adult son, Rino, to Elena letting her know that his mother has gone missing. Instead of concern, there is anger after the conversation ends: “‘We’ll see who wins this time,’ I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”
And while Ferrante sets readers up to believe that Lila is bad and Elena is good, as the story progresses, the lines blur. The series follows them over four decades, set against a backdrop of a dirty, crime-infested neighborhood of Naples, Italy: “Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”
Despite the poverty and violence, Ferrante treats her characters and her setting in much the same way—with nuance, and without judgment, bringing readers along for an Italian odyssey of sorts. Through vendettas and heartbreak, poor relationship choices and tests of honor, each book is a masterpiece all its own.
“In terms of aesthetics, I think that there’s an intensity of purpose in the books, a great degree of ambition that readers respond to,” said Reynolds.
“The fact that at the center of this story is a relationship between two women is absolutely essential to what’s made them popular… And there’s something in Ferrante’s style of writing that is high literature: it’s a psychological penetration, a narrative structure that is very literary. At the same time, she writes and constructs her stories using every trick in the book to make them page turners,” he explained.
Those tricks are tools of genre fiction—such as romantic triangles, promises of violence, and, perhaps most importantly, cliff-hangers—which Ferrate deftly applied to literary fiction in order to get people to turn the pages. The chapters are short, the pacing quick, but never rushed, and at the end of almost every chapter, there is a question or an aha moment, a feeling of “to be continued” that compels you to move forward and find out what happens.
“I’m not sure that I even know all of the ingredients that have gone into her success,” said Reynolds. “Certainly in America, the fact that we, as an independent publisher, were able to stick with her with several books that garnered a readership, especially among writers and some reviewers, was really important. It grew over the years, and when the first installment of the Neapolitan Series arrived, we were able to capitalize on that existing readership. We knew this new series of books had wider potential, and we trampolined off of that.”
Perhaps the most unconventional element of that uniquely intimate relationship Ferrante has crafted with her readers is her anonymity. Despite hints and clues to her identity littered throughout her various books such as an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Italian history and politics and a preternatural understanding of Neopolitan customs and geography, her true identity remains elusive. Yet, that hasn’t stopped some from trying to unmask her nom de plume.
In 2016, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti embarked upon a two-part investigation of Elena Ferrante to try and discover her true identity in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. In the first part, Gatti writes:
“(A)fter a months-long investigation it is now possible to make a powerful case for Ferrante’s true identity. Far from the daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress described in Frantumaglia, new revelations from real estate and financial records point to Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator whose German-born mother fled the Holocaust and later married a Neapolitan magistrate.”
There was much backlash to the piece, mostly for not respecting the author’s request for anonymity. As part of Gatti’s investigation, he reached out to the woman he thought was Ferrante, her husband, their family members, as well as the co-owners of Edizioni e/o, her Italian publisher, to solve the mystery surrounding her identity. Sandro Ferri, one of the publishers, reportedly told him:
“If this is an article that intends to make revelations about Ferrante’s identity, I’m telling you right now that we will not give answers.” He added that such an article was an, “invasion of privacy, ours and Ferrante’s. When I then provided the details of my findings to a spokesperson for Edizioni e/o, I was told that the publisher’s position regarding hypotheses about Ferrante’s identity hasn’t changed.”
Perhaps the upside of the investigation by Gatti was the discussions it elicited: the ethics of such types of articles; the right to anonymity; and what the role of an author is, especially if she happens to be female.
“We never heard from the author confirming or denying,” said Reynolds. “There was no word from her at all, and so it really remains speculation, which we’ve been dealing with for decades when it comes to Ferrante.”
In 2015, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Ferrante commented on the question of her gender and identity, touching on the ethical concerns and double standards of the publishing industry. Oddly, much of what she said seemed to foreshadow the reveal to come:
“There are good women writers, not so good ones, and some great ones, but they all exist within the area reserved for the female sex, they must only address certain themes and in certain tones that the male tradition considers suitable for the female gender.
“And, if there’s no author photo of a woman then the game is up: it’s clear, in that case, that we are dealing with a man or an entire team of virile male enthusiasts of the art of writing. What if, instead, we’re dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of the literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes. We know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them as well as, if not better, than men.”
Part of why Ferrante chose, from the very beginning, to remain anonymous reflects on her idea of what the role of a writer is, namely, to write. By not touring and granting endless interviews, she also sets boundaries and protects her creative space—keeping the fiction fictitious and the reality real.
“More recently, I think there’s a sense that she’s suggesting that a reader’s engagement with a novel is going to be different if they don’t have the image of the author in front of him or her, or biological information,” Reynolds said. “And she feels that the engagement will be deeper or greater without it.
In a somewhat ironic twist, the series penned by a notoriously private author is about to get very public. In 2017, it was announced that HBO picked up the adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, producing it alongside Wildsde, Italian network RAI, and Fandango. HBO also confirmed that Ferrante would write the series with Italian writers Fracesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci, as well as the director Saverio Costanzo.
“We are thrilled to partner with Wildside, RAI, and Fandango to bring the powerful, epic storytelling of Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels to life,” Casey Bloys, president of HBO programming, said in the statement. “Through her characters, Elena and Lila, we will witness a lifelong friendship set against the seductive social web of Naples, Italy. An exploration of the complicated intensity of female friendship, these ambitious stories will no doubt resonate with the HBO audience.”
Costanzo is set to direct all eight parts, and all dialogue will be in Italian, a first for an HBO drama. The aim of the series is to adapt all four novels in the series, for a total of 32 episodes.
“I do know that [Ferrante] is deeply involved with the screenplays and the writing of the series,” said Reynolds. “Things seem to be moving along fairly well and I know they’ve written out the first season and now they’re going through the edits.”
In an attempt to keep the series pure and authentic, the producers looked for amateur child actors. In May of 2017, they held an open casting call for two sets of eight-year-old girls to play young Lila and Elena, as well as their 15-year-old versions, in addition to a group of supporting cast members to play their friends and comrades, a choice Ferrante approved of.
“Child actors portray children as adults imagine children to be,” she explained in an interview with the New York Times. “Children who are not actors have some chance to break free of the stereotype, especially if the director is able to find the right balance between truth and fiction.”
While there’s no telling how the HBO series will turn out, and comparisons to other shows such as Game of Thrones (in terms of popularity, not content) have already cropped up, one thing’s for sure: people will watch. And if it’s a flop, they can always return to the original magic, the voice that millions of people fell in love with, something authentic and true, not overworked or overdone.
“I think that avoidance of too much polish makes the readers feel as if they’re being addressed more directly by the writer,” said Reynolds. “And that, ironically, gives a feeling that there is a flesh and bone writer behind the prose.”