Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet Offers Penetrating Psychological and Sociopolitical Insight

A committed feminist, Ferrante writes with often astonishing candor, even "ferocity", about women's lives, their conflicted relationships with their bodies, with each other, and with men.

The Italian author Elena Ferrante is a “global literary phenomenon”, as one speaker at a 6 October New York event said. Her reaching that exalted status, however, was anything but a sure thing. In fact, in the US, where she enjoys a devoted and growing readership, as well as critical acclaim, reviewers initially were either indifferent to or put off by Ferrante’s novels. At the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s English-language translator; Kent Carroll, director of Europa Editions, her American publisher; and CUNY academics Bettina Lerner and Giancarlo Lombardi spoke about Ferrante’s work and its reception in the US.

Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan novels”, which portray the 60-year friendship between two brilliant working-class women, Elena “Lenuccia” Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo, offer traditional storytelling infused with penetrating psychological and sociopolitical insight. A committed feminist, Ferrante writes with often astonishing candor – and, as not a few critics have noted, “ferocity” – about women’s lives, their conflicted relationships with their bodies, with each other, and with men. The four books – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child – together constitute a more than 1,600-page saga that is both a portrait of a female friendship and a chronicle of Italy from the end of World War II to the present.

Ferrante found her initial audience in America among women readers “educated intelligent women who belonged to at least one book club”, according to Carroll.

In 2005, Europa Editions published Days of Abandonment, a novel about a marital breakup that three years earlier had been a critical success in Italy. Carroll was impressed because the book told “a common story in a very different way”. His companion, one of those women readers who first appreciated Ferrante, told him, “this is not just an important book; it’s a great book.” When Janet Maslin favorably compared Days of Abandonment to Anna Karenina in her New York Times review, the book began to find an audience, eventually selling more than 8,000 copies. But the next Ferrante novel that Europa published, Troubling Love (2006), did not catch on with critics or readers, nor did a third, The Lost Daughter (2008).

In 2012, Europa brought out My Brilliant Friend, the first installment in what became the Neapolitan quartet. Critics mostly ignored it, except for the New York Times, which ran a brief and mostly unfavorable review. In January 2013, an admiring essay by New Yorker critic James Wood proved to be what Carroll called the “turning point” in Ferrante’s critical reception. Wood, said Carroll, “gave her stature” in the Anglophone literary world (“Women on the Verge“, 21 January 2013). But a year later, when Europa published the second Neapolitan novel, The Story of a New Name, it was an even harder sell to reviewers “because the first book had hardly been reviewed”.

Then, said Carroll, “a conversation began” among women who loved the books and were fascinated by “the mystery of Ferrante’s privacy”. (“Elena Ferrante” actually is a pseudonym. The author insists on anonymity; she makes no personal appearances and grants interviews – rarely – only via email.) Carroll said word of mouth among her women fans generated interest in the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which attracted more critical attention. “The books started to do very well,” he said. “The success of third brought the others along. By the time of the fourth (The Story of the Lost Child), we no longer had to persuade critics.”

Ann Goldstein’s superb translations capture the flow and rhythms of Ferrante’s unique prose style. Goldstein, who has translated all of Ferrante’s novels published by Europa, hadn’t heard of the writer until she won a competition to translate Days of Abandonment. “I was completely gripped by that novel,” she remarked. Of the Neapolitan novels, she began with My Brilliant Friend and then translated the next three books in succession.

“It was quite difficult in some ways to translate Ferrante,” she remarked. “There are the general challenges of going from Italian to English, and then the specific challenges” of Ferrante’s style. The “looseness” of Ferrante’s Italian syntax particularly posed problems; there was a danger that her long, beautifully crafted sentences could become run-on sentences in English. “I had to find a balance between keeping the Italian style and making it read in English,” she observed. She had to make “word-by-word decisions” because “you can’t constantly use two or three words for one, so you have to decide which is the most important nuance or meaning of a word.” She said she decided to retain an Italian word that Ferrante frequently uses, stradone, because the English words she considered – “big road”, “large street” – were unsatisfactory equivalents for “such an important word and image in the novels”.

Bettina Lerner observed that translation is “one of organizing structures within the novels themselves”. She quoted Elena’s observation about her friendship with Lila: “the nature of our relationship dictates that I can only reach her by passing through myself.” This, Lerner observed, “is the heart of translator’s challenge – to translate always demands an accounting of one’s own voice, one’s own words.”

Giancarlo Lombardi, an Italian-born academic who specializes in film and television studies, compared Ferrante to David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, because of her narrative unpredictability. “Chase always said, if viewers want me to go a certain way, I go the opposite way. This is what Ferrante does.” He praised the “ferocity” and “rawness” of Ferrante’s writing, adding that she “goes to places where other writers don’t usually go.” He also singled out her treatment of history and of class, “how some people become rich, how some make it in the post-World War II era”. “The presence of history is a constant,” he observed. Whether it’s the Red Brigades’ killing of politician Aldo Moro, terrorist bombings, or Italy’s political corruption scandals of the early ’90s, “the events are in the background, but they touch the lives of the characters.”

Lombardi said that although Ferrante had enjoyed some prominence in Italy, her popularity in America, in English translation, raised her profile at home. “She never was as big as she is now, as a consequence of how big she is in the US,” he said.

In something of a surprise announcement, Lombardi said that the Italian network Rai is developing a television series based on the Neapolitan novels. He admitted to some qualms about that. But it’s encouraging, he said, that the head writer reportedly will be Francesco Piccolo, “one of most important screenwriters in Italy now, who also is very clearly left-wing.” He ended on an optimistic note: one of the most acclaimed Italian films of the past decade or so, Best of Youth, originally was a Rai TV drama.

However the series turns out, one thing seems certain. Ferrante, who has said that books, once they are published, “have no need of their authors”, won’t be promoting it.

Panelists (L-R) Bettina Lerner, Ann Goldstein, Giancarlo Lombardi, Kent Carroll