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Life, Places, Writing

What Elena Ferrante’s writing means to me

IMG_0844After an Easter trip to southern Italy that was directly inspired by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (and feeling bereft on finishing the fourth and final one at Christmas), I recently mentioned on Twitter that I was planning a blog post on what this extraordinary author’s writing means to me if I could find the words.

And those words have proven very hard to find.  Assuming that I’m writing this for a mix of fellow Ferrante fans, refuseniks and the uninitiated, I’m going to keep it very simple, for my sake, not yours.  There are so many interesting and exhaustive analyses of Ferrante’s literary output and every conceivable related angle that I need not aim for critical distance or objectivity.  I probably couldn’t if I tried.  This is personal.

Our history goes like this: in summer 2014 I purchased a copy of standalone novel Days of Abandonment out of mild curiosity as I’d heard people raving about Ferrante.  Less than 24 hours later, I’d finished it, assaulted and invigorated in equal measure by the rawness, the ugly, visceral truth of it. The memory of that moment persists in every dimension: where I was sitting, the time of day, the way the light fell.   The fact that I was drinking a cup of coffee and found myself unable to swallow.  I could barely breathe.

Where do you go from there?  At least six months passed before I could contemplate embarking on the Neapolitan novels despite ‘Ferrante Fever’ raging all around me. Last year I read all four, probably the first time I have voluntarily consumed so much by a single author since I was a 13-year-old obsessed with Agatha Christie.  To those who have told me, often with a sense of regret or even inadequacy, that they can’t see what the fuss is about, I say this: My Brilliant Friend didn’t grab me either.  Not after Days of Abandonment. I was disappointed.

IMG_0957Months later, when I decided to continue with The Story of a New Name (incidentally the only one with a cover I don’t hate), the sight of the lengthy list of characters by clan which prefaces each volume made me wonder if it was worth the effort.  But that was to be the last time I referred to it, reading the second and third volumes almost back-to-back (apologies to the perfectly decent American author who intervened, you didn’t have a hope), then saving the final one a few months in order to savour it.  This is life on a big canvas, at once epic and intimate, deeply rooted in its own eras, places and issues, yet astonishingly timeless and universal.

I may not have surrendered easily but this band of shopkeepers, shoemakers and gangsters had me before long as surely as if they’d snatched me off a crowded street with a gun to my temple.  I was sucked into a culture of deprivation, corruption, machismo and normalised brutality; a man’s world that gives its female protagonists Lila and narrator Lenù (Elena) much to rage against, binding them to the city and each other in many touching and toxic ways, whether they stay or whether they leave.  Having just had a brief glimpse of Naples, I can well believe it would be complicated and I didn’t need to seek out any precise locations from the books to reach that conclusion.

Why does Ferrante’s fiction affect me so profoundly?  Well, it isn’t the writing per se.  The narration has a bracing directness, and at times, ferocity, that is entirely in tune with the story and its emotional register, and this is what makes it so compelling.  The downside is that the author’s prose style lacks elegance and features many awkward and unnatural constructions and phrases.  As so often, many English language readers attribute this to the translation but as a linguist (although neither a translator nor Italian speaker), I only had to hear Ferrante’s American translator Ann Goldstein discuss the technical challenges at an event last year to realise this was not the case.  I subsequently found this piece maintaining that the English version is an improvement on the Italian original both convincing and fascinating.

IMG_0954For me, particularly as a writer, the genius of Ferrante lies in a unique synergy between territory and treatment.  In amongst subjects of which I know nothing, such as Italian politics, are others I think and write about all the time, things I feel very strongly about.  So often I am conscious of a dissonance between women as we are packaged, represented, evaluated in public, the media, TV, advertising, etc – a kind of collective duping exercise leading to what you might call the ‘official version’ – and the ‘real versions’.  I use the plural deliberately because the reality of women’s experience and inner lives is of course infinitely more complex and diverse (and I’m aware that many have far greater cause for complaint and no opportunity to express it).  Fiction can contribute to redressing the balance but only if those who dare write with uncensored openness succeed in hooking up with those who can make their voices heard (or have a very loud voice to do it themselves). Readers can only engage with what’s  available and for my money, one authentic, distinctive discovery is worth ten or twenty novels rehashing the same old tropes because they supposedly ‘work’.

I appreciate beautiful writing, but I value fearlessness and honesty more.  Telling the truth is never about the method of delivery.  In exposing the under-examined dark side of being a woman, mother, daughter, wife, lover and friend, Ferrante legitimises ‘real versions’ that can be the hardest to admit to; that we are flawed, conflicted, dissatisfied, insecure.  She challenges many a stock assumption about women’s emotional make-up and behaviour and its perception by others, both male and female – and it is worth noting that the novels are taken seriously by many male readers.  I could bang on about all this for hours but I suspect I’ll be doing plenty of that as the year progresses!

Ferrante has said that her continued anonymity permits her to ‘say the unsayable’. Her work was only ever made available to readers on this basis, before she became the international phenomenon she is now, so it is not a publicity stunt.  Whilst a certain amount of speculation is inevitable, true admirers of her work respect her wishes and deplore the recent stepping-up of efforts to ‘unmask’ her, achieving nothing but making the lives of various unfortunate Italian academics and authors a misery.  It does seem likely that the Neapolitan novels have a strong autobiographical streak but I’m always  bemused by readers’ preoccupation with that issue where novelists in general are concerned.  What difference does it actually make to complete strangers? I don’t really care one way or the other if it’s a good story.  Again, I could say more but I’ll hold fire for now.

Elena Ferrante, whoever you are, you have given me countless hours of enjoyment and education in the company of characters I believed in.  You have shown me another world whilst helping me to better understand my own.  You have inspired me to be a braver and perhaps better writer, except when it comes to writing about you. Grazie mille. And thanks to Ann Goldstein too.

You know I’m dying to hear what you think…


Next week’s Guest Author is Amanda Saint, whose debut As if I were a River will be published on Monday.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


14 thoughts on “What Elena Ferrante’s writing means to me

  1. Interesting post, Isabel. I finally succumbed to Ferrante last year, but was disappointed with My Brilliant Friend – I felt the voice was a relentless, gossipy monotone – although I enjoyed her forensic insights into the girls’ relationship; and the detail of a forgotten world. I’m intrigued that the English version might be considered ‘better’ than the original – looks like Ann Goldstein did a great job of simplifying the language. I agree that Ferrante’s theme is a vital one, but I just couldn’t get past the clunky writing. Know I’m in the minority though!

    Posted by Sarah Hegarty | April 9, 2016, 21:44
    • Hi Sarah and thanks for commenting. I’ve heard many make similar observations, or even be put off from picking up Ferrante because of the writing. I don’t think it changes that much as the series progresses but as I said, for me there was so much else of intense interest that it really wasn’t an issue (although to be fair, I didn’t react as strongly against it as you did!) Sometimes there’s a trade-off, and it might be possible to make a conscious decision not to be annoyed by the writing? On the other hand, the world is full of other books and I’ve proven resistant to many literary crazes, so I understand that too!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | April 11, 2016, 10:30
  2. Love this Isabel… I’ve yet to read the Neopolitans – still reeling/recovering from her novellas & how best to review them…

    I’d certainly agree with your words regarding her characters ‘flawed, conflicted, dissatisfied, insecure’ and add raw and discomforting re her prose; unusually – as I’d normally find it a hinderance, annoying even – I’d say the lack of finely tuned elegance and the awkwardness adds rather than distracts… it’s like her writing is a brilliant oxymoron but just not quite sure what exactly.

    Best of all she makes me want to be braver with my own writing…

    Posted by Poppy Peacock | April 9, 2016, 22:39
    • Thanks, Poppy. I freely admit that I am pretty picky when it comes to the actual writing when I’m reading a novel, and that’s the number one reason I give up on books. But I agree with you that whilst Ferrante’s prose may not be the most exquisite, it lends itself well to the material. I couldn’t not mention this in my piece but it was a minor consideration and really doesn’t detract from my admiration for the novels. And yes to making us braver – more than anything it seems that Ferrante’s openness to saying things that can be seen as shocking (not by me, I have to say) has mobilised readers to this extraordinary degree.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | April 11, 2016, 10:37
  3. I haven’t tackled EF’s novels yet although they are available here. Thanks for your review. Now at least I have some idea of what they’re about. They sound dramatic and heavy – not sure I’m up for this, as daily life in South Africa supplies an overabundance of both!

    Posted by alison41 | April 10, 2016, 06:51
  4. Ok. I have so much to say on Elena Ferrante’s series of novels there is so much in them that matters to me so I think I’ll confine myself to one or two aspects.
    The first being the fact that education and the intellectual life is a real goal for both women. Their struggle to be educated, studying, the money needed to keep going further and in the case of one the cruel curtailment of that pursuit, was incredibly moving and for me very personal. when Elena finally gets to university the pages where she deals with her sense of alienation and internal feelings of being an outsider were one of the truest things I’ve read. You can, and I did, go through all that studying and struggle to get there but find yourself surrounded by middle class people who have a background and connections that is as normal as oxygen to them. For Elena, and I felt this when I got to Cambridge, she can talk the talk, she’s read the right books but she senses in herself an inauthenticity particularly in her language, rather like speaking in a 2nd language. However fluent one’s never quite got that under the skin linguistic comfort.

    Which brings me to the other aspect the simple writing style that is most apparent in My Brilliant Friend. To me that is a deliberate choice that Ferrante makes. A committment to speak in a truer language other than the highly stylised literary writing that so many (sorry rather pretentious) writers use. She’s coming from a different place and expressing herself with deliberate simplicity and directness. I loved the gossipy nature of her writing. It’s absolutely key to making what are often very hard intellectual and political descriptions palatable and compelling. It makes the series of books page-turning. You aren’t bogged down with pretty words. And I think in her Paris Review interview she states that she consciously wanted to use a narrative style that sounded like her talking directly to a friend telling something that had to be told.

    And then there’s everything else going on in these novels that all requires great thought and discussion. The historical context – the political and social upheavals. The sexual politics – compelling and accurate. Female sexuality. The gender politics – not least her disappointed feelings on becoming pregnant and her fear that all the education and advantage she’s fought for are about to be swept away by biology, that despite her degree she’ll end up like her mother – few women writers dare to go into this subject with such searing honesty. Kids do slow you down but god help you if you mention that in a room full of women. The female friendship is a core element to the books – and again she’s unflinching and honest and true in her depiction of the ups and downs, the betrayls, the bond.

    But all of this comes to you the reader within the context of a strong story compellingly told so that once you’re in you can’t put the books down. My Brilliant Friend is a beautiful book and now I’m sitting on the fourth and last unable to bear even starting it because it means the whole thing will soon be over.

    Suffice to say reading these novels has been an extraorindary experience, particularly as a writer, because Women’s fiction can be so much better if we’re willing, as men allow themselves to do, if we’re willing to look at ourselves with more truth and honesty than we have in the past. A lot of women’s fiction is almost ‘victim’ fiction where we say poor me but Ferrante doesn’t do that. Both her women are good and bad but pick themselves up and are whole people.

    As for her need for anonmynity, I think that has more to do with not wanting to spend her life arguing at readings about what she’s written, more than (or at least as much as) protecting her personal privacy and those she’s written about. I think the novels are a clever combination of fact and fiction, and readers so often for some reason want to believe that everything they read is based on real life. It’s truth in art that matters not whether something happened exactly that way. Phew. Over and out. A

    Posted by Annette | April 10, 2016, 18:31
    • THANK YOU, Annette, for articulating so brilliantly the things I couldn’t go into! We have both experienced the challenges of even embarking on the subject of Ferrante’s writing because there is just so much there to discuss and think about. I too was touched on a personal level by the game-changer of women getting an education. I live the life I do because of my mother’s fight to do this, as I mentioned in a previous post. (WoMentoring Project) And I had a similar experience to you when I arrived at Oxford – it arose from my own sense of dislocation and was alleviated by the realisation that nobody had any interest in judging me on anything but my academic potential, and that here I stood as good a chance as anyone. I’ve enjoyed our previous conversations about the need for greater frankness in writing about the truth and complexity of women’s lives, rather than conforming to what’s seen as comfortable, warm or nice. (UGH!) It certainly doesn’t make it easy to get a break, but I genuinely believe it needs to be done!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | April 11, 2016, 10:24
      • Thank you. I’ve had another thought about why Ferrante has kept the language simple, and slips into what she repeatedly says is dialect, I think she has written these books to reach as wide an audience as possible, to include readers who aren’t trained in literary or academic communication. In other words all of these things are happening to ordinary people who are trapped not only economically but linguistically. They were then in the 60’s/70’s, they are now. And with all the library closures it’s about to get worse again.

        Posted by Annette | April 11, 2016, 14:15
  5. I agree wholeheartedly with what Annette has written. I have read all four Neapolitans and Days of Abandonment. What I like about Ferrante’s work is her unflinching portrayal of all facets of a woman’s life: the good and the bad. Both main characters have flaws and annoying traits which makes them rounded and human. I liked the fact that the language was not poetic (I’m a poet and poetry editor – I get enough of it!) I liked its straightforward, chatty tone. It was plot and character driven, not about the language per se. Fascinating for me to read about a poverty-stricken, post-war Italian social class and their mores and manners of which I have had no personal experience. I thought the relationship between Lenu and her mother was particularly mesmerizing: such jealousy, love, spite and bitterness from the mother for her daughter. Horrible to read, but so human.

    Posted by Jennifer | April 10, 2016, 22:02
  6. I’ve come to this post a bit late Isabel but I think it’s brilliant. I haven’t read EF at all but I’m going to. I always find what you write about women very striking.

    Posted by Anne Simpson | May 13, 2016, 20:38


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