The multifarious hypotheses on the public identity of Elena Ferrante are one of the elements that have contributed to the success of her literary production. Her career as a writer of fiction begins in 1992 with the publication of L’amore molesto (1992) [Troubling Love, 2006]. Ten years later, the publication of I giorni dell’abbandono (2002) [The Days of Abandonment, 2005] is shortly followed by La figlia oscura (2006) [The Lost Daughter, 2008]. The interest around the author’s identity -- she declared she didn’t chose anonymity, she chose absence -- is paired with a cultural phenomenon subsequent to the publication and translation of the so-called “Neapolitean quartet” or “Neapolitan novels”. The four books of the saga trace the story of the friendship of the two protagonists, Lila and Elena, and cover the periods of their childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and beginning of old age: L’amica geniale. Infanzia, adolescenza (2011) [My Brilliant Friend, 2012]; Storia del nuovo cognome. L’amica geniale volume secondo (2012) [The Story of a New Name, 2013]; Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta. L’amica geniale volume terzo (2013) [Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, 2014]; and Storia della bambina perduta. L’amica geniale volume quarto (2014) [The Story of the Lost Child, 2015], shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Her most recent novel is La vita bugiarda degli adulti (2019) [The Lying Life of Adults, 2020]. In addition to her novels, Elena Ferrante has also published a children’s story, La spiaggia di notte (2017) [The Beach at Night, 2016].
The visual power of Ferrante’s narrative makes her works extremely adaptable to other media, in particular movies and TV series. As a result, shortly after the four books of the “Napolitean Quartet” were published, they were adapted into a critically acclaimed TV series that aired on Italian public television and on HBO in 2018 and 2020 (based on the first two books of the saga). In 2017, moreover, Giacomo Durzi directed a documentary with the title Ferrante Fever exploring Ferrante’s popularity outside Italy. Durzi’s documentary is based on interviews and on a non-fiction work by Ferrante, La frantumaglia (2003-2016) [Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey, 2016]. This fragmentary collection of short notes, meditations, and selected correspondence between the author and her publishers and journalists, published for the first time by Edizioni e/o in Italian in 2003 and then enriched in subsequent editions, represents a precious repository illuminating Ferrante’s creative and research process. As explained by the author, frantumaglia is a word in Napolitean dialect that her mother often used:
Diceva che aveva dentro una frantumaglia. La frantumaglia (lei pronunciava frantummàglia) la deprimeva. A volte le dava dei capogiri, le causava un sapore di ferro in bocca. Era la parola per un malessere non altrimenti definibile, rimandava a una folla di cose eterogenee nella testa, detriti su un’acqua limacciosa del cervello.
[She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia (she pronounced it frantummàglia ) depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was a word for disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. Frantumaglia 99]
The reconfiguration of this “jumble of fragments” guides the reader and observer through a recomposition of Ferrante’s narrative system framing all her works. In the Frantumaglia, Ferrante establishes the nuclei developed in her works and explains the creative process behind her novels. In this sort of procedural notebook, it is possible to trace the genesis of the tetralogy L’amica geniale:
Ho cominciato a scrivere, quasi sei anni fa, una storia di sofferta amicizia femminile che veniva direttamente dall’interno di un libro a cui tengo molto, La figlia oscura. Pensavo di cavarmela con cento, centocinquanta pagine. Invece la scrittura, direi con estrema naturalezza, mi ha tirato fuori memorie di persone e di ambienti dell’infanzia, racconti, esperienze, fantasie, tanto che la storia è andata avanti per anni.
[Almost six years ago I started writing a story of a difficult female friendship that came directly from inside a book that I’m very attached to, The Lost Daughter. I thought I could manage it in a hundred, a hundred and fifty pages. Instead, the writing I would say extremely naturally unearthed memories of people and places from my childhood—stories, experiences, fantasies—so much so that the story went on for many years. Frantumaglia 280]
It is not surprising, therefore, that the four instalments are connected and intertwined: they compose a fresco that starts in the 1950s and expands until recent years through the evolution of the two protagonists and their achievements and failures in a world that is progressively changing. The blurred margins of this world are expressed by the author through the concept of smarginatura (“dissolving margins”). In the tetralogy, Lila is at the center of this smarginatura, an experience in which “the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared” (My Brilliant Friend 89). This distressing sensation could be considered a sort of estrangement denoting the need to cross the borders of her reality to experience other worlds. This idea of constant escape connects the four books of the series, built on the friendship of the two protagonists, Elena Greco (Lenù) and Raffaella Cerullo (shortened in Lina or Lila), and on their growth and progressive adaptation to society. Represented by the rione (neighbourhood), their society is a microcosm with a strong centripetal and centrifugal force, a pole of attraction or rejection for the two girls. A constellation of themes enriches the plot: though Lila and Lenù’s relationship is central to the storytelling, it generates such topics as education, violence, abuse, work, gender disequality, working rules, motherhood, and many others.
In the first book of the tetralogy, L’amica geniale, the narrative evolves along a process of reminiscence. The event that triggers Elena Greco’s memory is the phone call from Rino, son of Lila Cerullo, advising that his mother disappeared without a trace from her home in Naples. This disappearance is connected to the idea of “dissolution” that accompanies the character of Lila. Before disappearing, she has cut her own images from photographs erasing all signs of her existence. The phone call gives Elena the pretext to rewind the story of their friendship, which had begun when the two girls were in elementary school. Their different personalities immediately merge in a unique portrait with the two girls representing two different perspectives and pursuing different goals. One, Elena, identifies in Lila a strong, rebellious attitude that she misses in herself. The other, Lila, considers Elena her brilliant friend: “tu sei la mia amica geniale, devi diventare la più brava di tutti, maschi e femmine” (you are my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls (My Brilliant Friend 312). Elena, in fact, can pursue her eductation, thus moving outside the boundaries of the rione. Lenù, however, is not supported by her family and is thus forced to abandon school in order to help her father’s shoe-making business -- despite the efforts of a figure who is central to the formation of both girls, their elementary school teacher Maestra Oliviero. During their adolescence, as their lives take two different directions, the two girls share their thougths and vulnerability. Elena is very focused on her education, while Lila initiates a relationship with Stefano Carracci, owner of a grocery store in the rione, thus reinforcing her connection to the neighborhood. Elena is the first of the two friends to leave the rione when she travels to Ischia, an island that is central to the plot, considered an escape but at the same time the place of self-reflection and adaptation to a different reality. The novel ends with the wedding of Lila to Stefano Carracci. Powerful, controlling, sometimes violent, Stefano helps Lila and her family escape Marcello Solara’s control over their business: he buys Lila’s new prototype shoes, thus showing his influential power. The marriage of Lila is a moment of disillusionment for the two girls: Lila immediately realizes that her relationship with Stefano will always be unhappy, while Elena is conscious of her tortuous path as a writer and feels the need to leave the rione to pursue her success.
The beginning of the second book, Storia di un nuovo cognome, is centered on the personal journey that both Elena and Lila accomplish outside the rione: Elena receives a grant and she can attend the University in Pisa, Lila returns from her honeymoon with the clear idea of the failure of her marriage. She is successful in a shoe shop outside the neighbourhood. The rione, though, is always central to their mutual relationship and to the relationships they build with others. A new trip to Ischia changes the balance of their friendship: Lila has a relationship with Nino Sarratore, while Elena, who is in love with Nino, experiences a progressive separation from her friend. Rivalry is more evident. Upon their return, Elena attends the University in Pisa where she meets her future husband Pietro Airota, while Lila finds out she is pregnant. At first she moves in with Nino, but then she leaves the rione and starts a miserable life working in a meat factory. The rione is progressively fading, but it never disappears entirely. It always represents the connection between Lila, Elena, and their universe. The book closes with Elena presenting her book in Milan (published thanks to Pietro’s mother Adele) and Nino attending the event.
The third book of the tetralogy, Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta, opens with Elena meeting Nino in Milan, while she is launching her book. Elena is pursuing her dream of becoming a successful writer, but her relationship with the rione and with Lila is vivid again, and it is personified by Nino, the man who reconnects the two friends. Her marriage to Pietro and the birth of their two daughters, her life in Florence, and her writing experience are not fulfilling: Elena needs a constant connection to her former life, and this need leads her back to Lila. The latter’s experience in the meat factory is horrid: she undergoes unequal working conditions and sexual harrassment. Her speeches against the poor conditions of workers in factories, which prompted her exit from the meat factory, are published in a pamphlet by Elena. The two women separate again: Lila finds a better work environment at IBM, while Elena returns to her family and writes her second novel. Elena and Nino are very close, and when her book is translated into French, they leave on a romantic trip fraught with uncertainties.
The fourth book, Storia della bambina perduta, represents the closing of the circle, with Elena going back to the rione and the two women breaking up their first marriages and dealing with a new life with their children. Lenù is separating from her husband, the professor Pietro Airota, to start a new relationship wtih her first love, Nino. Lila has a stable relationship and offers her help and support to her friend, reporting on Nino’s lies and unreliable behaviour. Despite her interest in the female condition as a writer, Elena is passive and needs Lila’s protection and help. They live in the same building and share the same experience, again, as mothers and women. Matriarchy and motherhood are two strong features of Book Four. The empowerment of women is pursued by both protagonists, with different results. Lila tries to reform and clean up the rione by fighting against crime and heroine dealing: both her son and her brother are addicted to the drug. She opens a new business and has a long-term relationship that leads to the birth of her adored daughter Tina. After the birth of her third daughter, Immacolata, Elena receives Lila’s help and support to embrace motherhood. This process reshapes their friendship and establishes a new narrative nucleus. The sudden disappearance of Lila’s daughter Tina (as the title heralds) is followed by the disappearance of Lila. Her son, Rino, calls Elena to inform her about the vanishing of his mother: this episode reconnects the fourth book to the very beginning of the first one.
The success of the author among anglophone readers began after the translations of Ann Goldstein, the official Ferrante translator chosen by Europa editions, the North American publisher. In January 2013, after the publication of the English translation of the first book of the series, the literary critic James Wood published an article in The New Yorker, “Women on the Verge. The fiction of Elena Ferrante”, praising Ferrante’s narrative and emphasizing her ability to write across borders: “Ferrante’s own narrative has no limits, is willing to take every thought forward to its most radical conclusion and to its most radical birthing” (Wood). Since then, Ferrante’s international success has intensified. The global breath of the themes developed in her novels and the clear language she uses reach different readers, mixing local peculiarities (everyday life, habits and common attitudes of the characters) to universal interests (femminism, child abuse, intense yet fractious friendship, mother-daughter relationships, among many others). It is an “uncanny underground realism” (De Rogatis 280) which erodes the characters’ boundaries and sets up an empathic relationship with the readers. As reported by Adam Kirsch, the voice of the narrator in the “Neapolitan novels”, besides belonging to a single neighborhood, can be considered as part of a larger world. As a result, Kirsch deems the tetralogy an example of “global novel” (Kirsch 2017).
Costanzo, Saverio. L’amica geniale / My Brilliant
Friend. Screenplay by Saverio Costanzo, Elena Ferrante, Laura
Paolucci, Francesco Piccolo. Italy/USA, Fandango, Wildside, Umedia,
in collaboration with Rai Fiction, TimVision, HBO, 2018.
Costanzo, Saverio, and Alice Rohrwacher. L’amica geniale. Storia del nuovo cognome / My Brilliant Friend. Story of a New Name. Screenplay by Saverio Costanzo, Elena Ferrante, Laura Paolucci, Francesco Piccolo. Italy/USA, Fandango, Wildside, Umedia, in collaboration with Rai Fiction, The Apartment, Mowe, HBO, 2019.
De Rogatis, Tiziana. Elena Ferrante’s Key Words. New York: Europa Editions, 2019.
Dursi, Giacomo. Ferrante Fever. Screenplay by Laura Buffoni and Giacomo Dursi. Italy, Malia Film and Rai Cinema. 2017.
Ferrante, Elena. L’amore molesto. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 1992.
——. I giorni dell’abbandono. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 2002.
——. L’amica geniale. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 2011.
——. Storia del nuovo cognome. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 2012.
——.Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 2013.
——.Storia della bambina perduta. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 2014.
——. La frantumaglia. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 2003-2016.
——. The Days of Abandonement. Trans. Ann Goldstein. Rome: Edizioni e/o, 2005.
——. Troubling Love. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2006.
——. My Brilliant Friend. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2012.
——. The Story of a New Name. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2013.
——. The Story of the Lost Child. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2015.
——. Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2016.
Kirsch, Adam. “Starting from Home. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels”, in The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century. New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2016. Pp. 92-103.
Wood, James. “Women on the Verge. The fiction of Elena Ferrante”. The New Yorker, January 21, 2013.
Citation: Peluffo, Nicoletta. "Elena Ferrante". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 15 June 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=14614, accessed 24 May 2022.]