On Jan. 13, 2016, between the hours of 8 and 10 p.m., I was struck with a peculiar literary condition that has, over the past several years, rapidly spread among readers throughout the United States. My symptoms? I was in the grip of the final 100 pages of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the third book in Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. I was entranced by the novel; I couldn’t look up from its pages until I finished. What would happen to series’ narrator, Elena? Would she stay with her husband, or leave with her lover? I needed to know. I also needed the next book. But when I looked up at the clock it was already 9:45, too late to make an impromptu run to the nearest bookstore. Distraught, I considered: should I break my rule of paper-only reading and buy a Kindle copy? No — I wanted to savor the book in paper form. So I resigned myself to waiting impatiently until morning, anxiously anticipating the moment in which I could continue reading about Elena’s fate. But before I called it a night, I took to the Internet, where, via Twitter, like so many readers before me, I diagnosed myself with #FerranteFever.
Perhaps part of the rage around Elena Ferrante’s writing is that no one knows her identity. Since the publication of her first novel in 1992, Ferrante has successfully remained anonymous. Her first, and only, interview was published last year in The Paris Review; yet not only was it conducted by the editors of her publishing house, but the text of the interview was edited by Ferrante herself. Not even Ferrante’s English translator knows her identity.
The author’s international popularity flared with the publication and subsequent translation of the Neapolitan series, whose translation into English was completed this past September. The series follows the lifelong friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo; as Elena transcends the limitations of her impoverished upbringing in a mob-run neighborhood to become an internationally renowned writer-intellectual, Lila, whose education ends with elementary school, stays in the neighborhood and becomes increasingly enmeshed in its bloody politics.
Theories abound as to what makes Ferrante’s writing so seductive. Some say it is the way she unapologetically foregrounds relationships among women as the primary focus of the novels. Others say it’s the way Ferrante ambitiously tackles the Italian politics of the era: communism, socialism, fascism and the feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s. In some sense, these two factors support each other: Much of Elena’s narration, especially as she recalls the formative moments in which she became an explicitly feminist writer, examines the structures of society that create competition amongst women for men’s attention and approval.
As much as the overtly political sense of Ferrante’s novels is exquisite, when I read the series, I was struck most by her ability to portray the reality of friendships, the turbulence relationships undergo throughout a lifetime and the intense pressures and tensions that test — and sometimes break — these important bonds. For all of the love Elena and Lila share, they are in competition, each constantly trying to outperform the other, or to show that other’s accomplishment is just an illusion. Lila in particular becomes known for this; she is often described — and self-described — as mean, vulgar and overly assertive, a woman whose eyes narrow into “slits” when she is thinking. Elena and Lila’s relationship takes on a texture of lived experience; there is no expected or prefabricated narrative line, nor is their friendship a story with a happy bow on top. Ferrante’s writing bites because it confronts readers with an uncomfortable truth: The most cutting emotional wounds will often come from those closest to us.
As well as a series about a friendship, the novels are also an extended meditation on writing and intellectual work. The first installment, “My Brilliant Friend,” begins in present day, with Elena receiving the news that Lila has disappeared. After learning that her friend has cut herself out of all the pictures in her house and removed every material “trace” of her life, Elena angrily decides to break the one promise she made to Lila, that she wouldn’t write about her. Elena’s intention is clear: She is attempting to pin down, with words, a friend who is trying to vanish. The Neapolitan series is thus framed by the urgency contained within the act of writing, and the way in which writing serves to give definition to memory and to things that are assumed to be lost or forgotten.
When I finished Ferrante’s last book, I had a different reaction than I usually do after finishing a work of contemporary fiction. There was no sadness that the book had ended, no wish for more pages — the fever had broken. Rather, I felt a sense of contentment, a sense that I had arrived, along with Elena, towards a complete view of her life. Perhaps I wasn’t sad because I knew immediately that I would return to Elena and Lila again, that one reading couldn’t capture the vibrancy of their lives. Instead, my first instinct was to push Ferrante’s books into all of my friends’ hands, to say, do yourself a favor, read this.