A Starter Kit for Elena Ferrante, the Celebrated Italian Author Who Remains an Enigma
Get to know the revered novelist before 'The Last Daughter' hits Netflix.
In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, available December 31 on Netflix, Olivia Colman’s Leda Caruso tells a heavily pregnant woman that “children are a crushing responsibility.” She then cheerfully wishes her a happy birthday and walks away.
Colman’s delivery in The Lost Daughter—a faithful adaptation of the Italian author Elena Ferrante’s book of the same name—understands something key not just about her prickly protagonist, but also of Ferrante herself: The art of the brutal retort has something to do not just with wit and brevity, but also with something confessional. Leda’s feelings about motherhood are as much admissions of her own maternal failures as they are cruel presumptions about others. She is simultaneously sadistic and honest, which is perhaps why the seemingly conventional drama has been received with discomfort, even classified as a "psychological horror film."
Ferrante, who is anonymous and uses a pseudonym, writes about herself that way in Frantumaglia, a collection of letters and various ephemera. About her mother, she writes: “My father … was very jealous. It was a jealousy that was based on the pure and simple fact that my mother was beautiful. … As a child I hoped that my father would lock her in the house and not let her go out. … I was sure that she would do terrible things if she merely appeared, and so I hoped that she would be forbidden to expose herself.”
Ferrante readers are used to narrators with seamy, even verboten, confessions about themselves alongside propulsive and strangely enigmatic plot twists, set in finely-drawn Italian cities (often Naples). Ferrante’s characters are rarely passively trapped by gender, class (often denoted in translation as “speaking in dialect”), sexuality, age, or family—but they’re trapped nonetheless.
For a time a well-kept literary secret, Ferrante became a true Anglophone phenomenon around 2012, when the English translation of the first book in her series of Neapolitan novels was published. Almost a decade later, every new and compulsively page-turning novel, perhaps with the help of some misleading covers, is still a major event.
But for those lucky enough to be uninitiated, here’s a primer on some of the translated works of Elena Ferrante (translated into English by Ann Goldstein). I’ll add an invaluable disclaimer I was given before I read her work for the first time: You may be tempted to breathlessly devour all of them (in which case: godspeed), but you should probably take wait a while between finishing one and starting another, lest you find yourself speaking like the withering Leda Caruso.
Troubling Love (English translation: 2006)
Whether Ferrante was already a famous writer or the wife and editor of one* (reports vary), Troubling Love reads like the work of a writer still coming into her own. A few years after the novel was originally published, it had already garnered a cult following in Italy. In 1995, an award-winning adaptation directed by Mario Martone premiered at Cannes to much fanfare.
Troubling Love is the story of Delia, a cartoonist living in Rome who receives unsettling calls from her mother, Amalia. Soon after, Amalia’s dead body washes ashore. In Naples for the funeral, Delia begins to investigate her mother’s apparent suicide, only to endure a series of slimy experiences. Amalia’s lover has a collection not just of Amalia’s underwear, but also Delia’s (at which Delia only laughs). Delia’s father, upon meeting her after many years, punches her in the face. As David Lipsky noted accurately in his mildly ungenerous review, “It’s a smelly book." It also sets a common Ferrantesque formula that has characters journey through the ickiest parts of a city. It’s not so much for Delia to discover the truth of her mother, but of herself. Delia, the first of many secretive Ferrante protagonists, is arguably the most traumatized, in a book filled with body horror. It’s excellent, but you probably shouldn’t start with this one.
*When Troubling Love was first published in Italian in 1991, Ferrante laid down the rules of engagement that she still adheres to: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”
The Days of Abandonment (English translation: 2005)
Ferrante’s follow-up to Troubling Love (in its original form) was published a decade later, and it is here that Ferrante’s true subject comes into focus: not trauma, motherhood, or even gender, but darkly hilarious and wild obsession. The novel begins unsparingly: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”
Olga, the abandoned wife and mother of two young children, flies into rages that are sudden and inexplicable even to her. “I couldn’t even act as I thought I should,” she thinks. “No work, no husband, numbed, blunted.” The most famous of Ferrante’s novels until the Neapolitan series, The Days of Abandonment introduces arguably her fascinating leitmotifs: the strangeness of banality. From the neighbor Carrano, a cellist, whose ordinary appearance Olga takes a sledgehammer to in a single devastating passage, to her cipher of an ex-husband whose new lover is the daughter of an old friend, the ancillary characters in The Days of Abandonment are rarely as fascinating as Olga, who is experiencing a crisis of dissociation that is as profound as it is funny. Olga’s extreme physical violence toward those around her is juxtaposed by her insistence that she no longer has use for the bourgeois trappings of a good wife. The slurs fly, and so do her fists.
Today, from the perspective of Ferrante’s oeuvre, it reads like a savage indictment of bourgeois life by a writer James Wood once referred to as “post-ideological.” The Days of Abandonment is an early sign of a leftist thread through Ferrante’s work that would only make itself known later. It’s also damn near perfect. I may be predisposed to Ferrante’s later work, but The Days of Abandonment is the unmitigated masterpiece of her standalone novels.
Extra reading (Or: You should definitely read it)
For those who contract true Ferrante frenzy, I would be remiss not to mention Frantumaglia, originally published in 2003 and translated into English in 2016. It is a fascinating collection of letters to fans and editors, plus the few interviews she deigned to grant over the years. It's as bracing and honest as any of her fiction, but much like her narrators, she doesn’t seem entirely reliable as to the minutiae of her life.
The Lost Daughter (English translation: 2008)
The Lost Daughter, a lean and superb page-turner, is Ferrante’s most simply constructed novel. Olga in The Days of Abandonment is a writer; Leda in The Lost Daughter an academic—but for Leda far more than Olga, all that has been gained has come at a terrible cost. Ferrante has no interest in making either Olga or Leda likable, and yet somehow they often are.
But Leda is an interesting Ferrante protagonist for another reason: The most established intellectual of all her narrators, she seems to know herself the least from the very outset. She may or may not have the emotional intelligence of a pea.
The Lost Daughter’s likeness to the novels that preceded it is complicated. Despite being, in many ways, the inverse of Troubling Love, it is far less grimy, explicitly violent, or profane, but somehow more chilling and familiar. Leda is out of place at the beach resort where she vacations. She observes a rowdy family, gets hit on by a local man, and otherwise drifts about in a lackadaisical fashion. Soon, she becomes entranced by a young mother, Nina (played in the film by Dakota Johnson with alarming precision and allure). Nina’s daughter seems to irritate Leda, but Nina is an object of fascination, perhaps even a kindred spirit. When Nina’s daughter gets lost, Leda gets involved. A split-second decision Leda makes during the search—a fairly low-key development for a Ferrante novel, more symbolically rather than overtly violent—keys up the novel’s investigation of Leda’s relationship to motherhood, to which Ferrante brings everything mothers may know about parenthood but are too afraid to say out loud.
The novel is all the proof anyone needs that even in a minor key, Ferrante is a master excavator of all that hides beneath the most intuitive of human experiences.
Neapolitan novels (English translations: 2012-2015)
The so-called Neapolitan novels are the stuff of legend. Where each of Ferrante’s standalones makes the smallest of journeys seem like an odyssey, the Neapolitan quartet is a bildungsroman of breathtaking scope. (The books are titled, in order: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child. The first two novels have been adapted in stellar fashion in an HBO series called My Brilliant Friend. Each season adapts roughly one of the books. The third season is coming to HBO in 2022).
Each of Ferrante’s previous protagonists was an adult woman, but here, Ferrante tells the story of childhood best friends Lila and Elena (nicknamed Lenù), from childhood to old age, as narrated by Lenù. The prologue to the first novel tells of how Lenù in her 60s receives a call from Lila’s son, who informs her that his mother has disappeared. Ferrante then retraces the steps of these two women into childhood. As children, they are ill-defined individuals, tentative, exceedingly bright, and competitive. As children often do, they become best friends partly through mutual fascination and partly by accident, growing up together in a working-class neighborhood in 1950s Naples., The two are essential to each other, until the story catches up to the fated prologue in the final book.
The Neapolitan novels find Ferrante putting everything that’s bubbled in her witch’s brew into the mix, but always refracting through the perspective of the unshakeable bond of friendship between Lila and Lenù. The first book, which roughly covers their adolescence, was so earth-shattering to me, it forced me to rethink my entire approach to personality. The novels feel different to Ferrante’s other books, but only because traumas bloom from fresh incidents rather than retrospect. Early on, Lila dubs Lenù “my brilliant friend.” Meanwhile, Lenù believes so strongly that Lila outshines her in all things that it is unclear which of the two might be right, only that the narrator is Lenù. The epiphany of the first novel lies in this ambivalence; the degree to which it can even be resolved is an all-consuming question.
Are we made in the image of the people we love, or can two children who become the best of friends really be that different from the very beginning? Lila and Lenù’s lives diverge wildly—working-class Naples always intrudes, as does education, marriage, motherhood, the workplace, romantic dalliances, petty jealousies, and an abiding interest in labor rights, student unions, and how the two girls perform or are expected to perform “politics” as such—but the series is first and foremost about the love that Lila and Lenù have for each other, one that can never be precisely articulated.
The Lying Life of Adults (English translation: 2020)
In her most recent novel, soon to be adapted as a Netflix series, Ferrante tells another coming-of-age tale. Giovanna is a wealthy girl growing up in “the Naples of the heights,” at that familiar age when children begin to be disenchanted by the adults in their lives. But in other ways, The Lying Life of Adults is a retreat to the stuff of Troubling Love. It is a self-contained story with as many revelations about the people around Giovanna as Giovanna herself, except that for perhaps the first time Ferrante hits against the limitations of her own incredibly high bar. Giovanna’s strife is incited by her parents’ separation. With her rarefied family—her father and mother are prestigious intellectuals and teachers— Giovanna is not only more naïve than Lila and Lenù (the bourgeois child that she is), but also far less interesting.
Still, Ferrante introduces a new vitality in the form of an estranged aunt. “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly,” Giovanna says at the outset. Ugly like her aunt Vittoria, that is, whom Giovanna’s father hates. Giovanna, devastated and intrigued, seeks out her aunt, who is the best part of the book (she’s almost like Lady Gaga’s Patrizia Reggiani in House of Gucci, except much more: a true high-wire act of stereotypical melodrama). Vittoria is both repulsive and alluring. She’s the smartest person in the book, but also all too often very wrong. And like many bitter middle-aged people, she’s hilariously repetitive.
Read it for Vittoria’s rants about class. She makes it all worth it. And in large part because of Vittoria, The Lying Life of Adults is also Ferrante’s funniest novel.