Posted: February 20, 2019
ho is Elena Ferrante? To this question there are three main responses: The first, found among 99% of humanity, is, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” The second, found among millions of avid Ferrante readers, is, “I know ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym, but her publishers say she is a woman from a rough working-class neighborhood in 1950s Naples who struggled to acquire a classical education—and I believe them, because no writer from a different background, especially no male writer, could possibly express so powerfully the deepest and most forbidden emotions felt by every woman on the planet!” The third response, found among an indeterminate number of sceptics, is, “I don’t know, and though mildly curious, I don’t much care.”
Until recently I belonged to the first group, the 99% who neither know nor care. But then I watched the eight-part HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, the first of four “Neapolitan Novels” published between 2012 and 2015, and finding it quite extraordinary, I delved into the novels and the voluminous body of criticism about their mysterious author. But instead of joining the fans, I joined the sceptics. This is because, with very few exceptions, Ferrante fandom overlaps with Ferrante criticism in ways that are not only politically tendentious and emotionally self-indulgent, but also obsessively invested in defining the author as a latter-day Cassandra, or perhaps Medea, whose entire purpose is to channel what is presumed to be the volcanic, hidden, and universal truth of female agony and rage.
Fortunately, this obsession seems not to have affected the TV series, which despite certain production challenges turned out to be both addictively watchable and refreshingly un-Hollywood. The initial production challenge was forging the original deal, which brought HBO together with a new generation of Italian producers and directors, including (among others) Lorenzo Mieli, Paolo Sorrentino, and Saverio Costanzo, who directed the series. There followed the challenge of adapting the novel, which was accomplished by Costanzo in consultation with the American screenwriter Jennifer Schuur and (through intermediaries) the reclusive author. Then there was the challenge of building an elaborate, historically accurate set on an acre of land in the city of Caserta, about 25 miles north of Naples.
The most daunting production challenge was the casting, because in the entire eight hours there is hardly a frame not tightly focused on the two main characters, Elena “Lenù” Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo. And this requires four actresses, because the story begins with Lenù and Lila as young girls meeting in primary school and encouraged by their teacher to become academic rivals; then it continues with the pair as teenagers taking divergent paths: quiet, studious Lenù continuing her education, and rebellious, mercurial Lila dropping out and becoming a shoemaker like her father. Not only that, but it was decided from the outset that all the characters would speak both standard Italian and the Neapolitan dialect; and that the starring roles would go to non-professionals. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the casting took eight months and over 9,000 auditions.
It was worth it. Remarkable as it sounds, not one of the chosen four—11-year-old Elisa Del Genio (young Lenù), 12-year-old Ludovica Nasti (young Lila), 15-year-old Margherita Mazzucco (teenage Lenù), and 14-year-old Gaia Girace (teenage Lila)—sounds a single false note. Compared with the hyperactive, hyperemotional, hypersexualized adolescents populating the American screen, these characters and their schoolmates may seem reticent, formal, even stiff. But that only makes them more authentic. Living in a neighborhood where violence can erupt at any moment—not least from the Camorra (Neapolitan mafia)—young people hoping for a better future must watch every step.
Men Who Are Not Monsters
Note that I said “young people,” not “young women.” Here we encounter a subtle but highly significant difference between the novel and the TV series. The novel contains numerous male characters, some drawn with sympathy. But without exception, they all morph at some point into an alien species whose nature is to betray and injure females. For example, Lila’s older brother Rino, who defends his sister against everyone, including their ill-tempered father, is described in the book as “the person who was closest to her, the person she loved most.” But this changes at a fireworks display, where Rino gets carried away trading insults with Marcello and Michele Solara, the arrogant sons of the local Camorra family. On this occasion, Ferrante describes Lila as having a nightmare vision of her brother “as he really was: a squat animal form, thickset, the loudest, the fiercest, the greediest, the meanest.”
It doesn’t happen quite this way in the TV series. On the screen, Rino (played compellingly by Tommaso Rusciano) is ill-tempered like his father, who is in turn routinely humiliated by other men more powerful than he. This holds true for most of Rino’s peers, but perhaps because the camera shows us their all-too-human faces, most of these onscreen male characters do not morph into monsters the way their on-the-page counterparts do. With the exception of Nino, the spoiled son of a lecherous philanderer, and the arrogant Solara brothers, the TV series shows the boys and men of this struggling neighborhood less concerned with oppressing girls and women than with being able to make a decent living as shoemakers, grocers, and street peddlers—occupations that stood out as middle class against the extreme poverty of postwar Naples.
In a Time magazine article about Naples, historian Paola Gambarota states that because of the heavy Allied bombing and the destruction of the city’s port and infrastructure by the retreating German army, Naples emerged from World War II so devastated that “[m]aybe only Berlin in 1945 can be compared.” On top of that, the city has been dominated since the 17th century by the Camorra, a now global criminal organization that has never hesitated to eliminate anyone standing in its way. Ferrante’s novel devotes a few pages to this history when describing the Carracci family, whose thriving grocery store depends on the protection of the mob-connected Solara family. But neither the novel nor the TV series provides more than a cursory sketch of this history. And the topic seems to hold very little interest for Lenù and Lila.
This omission may seem odd, but it is best explained by the novel’s central preoccupation with female suffering. As suggested earlier, both critics and fans of Ferrante carry this preoccupation to the point of obsession, extolling the mysterious author as a Cassandra, or Medea, crying in the wilderness about the monstrous nature of the male sex. These tragic myths do lend a dark resonance to My Brilliant Friend, most notably at the end, when in the midst of Lila’s wedding to the grocer Stefano Carracci, the Solara brothers appear—unwanted guests whose arrival forces Lila, in a terrible moment of recognition, to see that her new husband is hopelessly in thrall to the Camorra and that her efforts to outwit fate have failed. But not even the misogynist Greeks took these myths as a complete portrait of womanhood.
Wives Who Thrive
When asked (through intermediaries) which authors she admires, Ferrante often cites Christa Wolf, the East German novelist whose books include elaborations on the tragedies of Cassandra and Medea. I mention this because, along with being a feminist, Wolf was a happily married woman whose work thrived in part because of the love and support of her husband. Here are two excerpts from a 2005 interview with Die Zeit:
DZ: “When do you know you’re on the right track with something you’re writing?”
CW: “Once my husband’s read it…. He’s got a very accurate feel for my manuscripts. If I haven’t done the best I can, he says it.”
DZ: “Does that annoy you?”
CW: “And how!”
After our second interview in Mecklenburg, we all sit together in their big kitchen. Herr Wolf has prepared soup with fish from the nearby lake. “Do you admire your wife?” we ask. Christa Wolf says: “Woe betide you if you open your mouth now.” He smiles and is silent.
Scenes like these, revealing of a deep intellectual as well as emotional bond between wife and husband, do not occur in Ferrante’s fiction. The novels contain blissful interludes of romance and sexual passion, but these are invariably cut short by rapes, betrayals, affairs, and beatings, not to mention the burdens of motherhood (depicted as nearly intolerable). One could argue, of course, that these unrelenting miseries reflect the lived reality of the author. But surely there is considerable irony in the fact that Ferrante’s searing descriptions of female suffering are invariably praised for their “honesty” by people who do not even know who the author is. And in recent years the irony has only increased, as a fair amount of evidence has come to light suggesting that the real Elena Ferrante is that presumably impossible thing: a happily married couple.
The evidence is not dispositive, but in 2016, Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti published a lengthy article in the New York Review of Books suggesting that the author of the Ferrante novels is Anita Raja, the daughter of a German mother and a Neapolitan father who has worked as a translator at Ferrante’s Rome-based publisher, Edizioni e/o, since the 1990s. What Gatti did was simple: he followed the money.
Edizioni e/o’s annual revenues for 2014 were €3,087,314, a 65 percent increase from the previous year. In 2015, revenues went up another 150 percent, reaching €7,615,203. These extraordinary increases appear to be a direct result of Ferrante’s sales; the publisher had no other comparable bestsellers during these years. The growth in the publisher’s revenues are also closely paralleled in the growth of Raja’s own payments from Edizioni e/o over the same period, which I obtained from an anonymous source. In 2014, Raja’s compensation increased by almost 50 percent, and in 2015 it grew again by more than 150 percent, reaching an amount that was about seven times what she received in 2010, when the market for Ferrante’s books was still confined to Italy.
To complete the picture, Gatti cites the efforts of “literary critics, who sought to use philological techniques and stylistic analysis to compare Ferrante’s work with that of several of the writers proposed as candidates.” One of the names that came up with a “high probability” was Domenico Starnone, described by the American critic Rachel Donadio as “a self-aware postmodernist in the Italo Calvino vein with a penchant for literary jokes and meta-narratives.”
Oh, and here’s the happily married part: as noted by Gatti, Domenico Starnone is the husband of Anita Raja, and the success of “Elena Ferrante” seems to have benefited them both:
Public real estate records show that in 2000, after Ferrante’s first book was turned into a successful movie in Italy, Raja acquired in her own name a seven-room apartment near Villa Torlonia, an expensive area of Rome; the following year she bought a country home in Tuscany.
But the real commercial success of the Ferrante novels began in 2014 and 2015, when they conquered the international market….
Records show that in June 2016 Raja’s husband, Domenico Starnone, bought an apartment in Rome, less than a mile away from the one registered under his wife’s name. It is a 2,500 square foot, eleven-room apartment on the top floor of an elegant pre-war building in one of the most beautiful streets of Rome, also near Villa Torlonia, with a value estimated between $1.5 and $2 million.
The Magnificence of Penelope
When teaching The Odyssey to undergraduates, I highlight the virtues that, along with physical prowess, make Odysseus a great hero: courage, endurance, toughness, resourcefulness, alertness, shrewdness, cunning, boldness, patience. When he finally returns to Ithaca, where a gang of unruly suitors are vying to marry his wife, Penelope, I start hinting that these same virtues can be found in her. But the students do not take these hints. They admire Cassandra’s cursing of Apollo, Agamemnon, and all the other males who have been deaf to her prophecies. They praise Medea’s murder of her own children to punish the faithless Jason. But they disdain Penelope’s steadfastness. Indeed, they insist on seeing Penelope as a weepy, subservient cipher who (maybe) gets a kick out of having a bunch of young guys around, but is too dutiful and boring to do anything about it.
At that point it is the professor’s privilege to show them how wrong they are. I do this with the help of the American poet Robert Fitzgerald, whose translations of Homer are in my judgment the finest. In a Postscript written in 1962, Fitzgerald offers a close analysis of the drama that unfolds between Odysseus, who enters the palace disguised as a beggar because he doesn’t know whom he can trust, and Penelope, who likewise must dissemble in a house full of greedy interlopers and treacherous maidservants. Speaking in code because of the spies lurking in the shadows, husband and wife test each other’s veracity, loyalty, and fidelity until, having achieved a modicum of trust, they devise an equally encrypted plan of attack. Once the students get the hang of this analysis, they find these otherwise baffling scenes quite riveting. And most agree with Fitzgerald that it would be a mistake “to underrate the high and beautiful tension of [these scenes] and the nerve, the magnificence, of Penelope.”
There was one notable exception: a straight-A student who flatly refused to consider Fitzgerald’s analysis. So extreme was her refusal, and so unconvincing her arguments, that neither I nor her classmates could believe she was serious. Eventually, after a long and contentious discussion, she blurted out her reason: “I’m a feminist!” At the time, I was puzzled. But I have since worked out the connection between this extreme view and the initial failure of all the students to see anything resembling virtue, nerve, or magnificence in Penelope. Both stem from a deeply ingrained, largely unwitting, but stupendously arrogant assumption that no loving wife and mother, especially one drawn by a male author, could ever be magnificent. It now appears that this assumption is alive and well in Italy, where like the mist that envelops Athena when she does not wish to be recognized, the mist of anonymity envelops the real “Elena Ferrante” as she laughs all the way to the bank.