At a recent book launch for the latest and final book in the ever-reclusive Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan tetralogy, The Story of a Lost Child, the moderator asked the panelists—which included Ann Goldstein, Ferrante's translator, and Michael Reynolds, her editor—to respond to a word, by association. "Sausage factory," she prompted, and the audience—at least 80 people crammed into the back of an independent bookstore—shook with laughter.
Elena Ferrante's books are known for their addictive qualities, and like all addictions, getting lost in Ferrante's Naples—with its Cerullos, Grecos, Carraccis, Solaras, and a host of other mellifluous Italian names—feels very personal. But when thousands of people could chuckle at the same reference, you've entered cultural phenomenon territory. What is it about these books that make 'Ferrante Fever,' as the buzz around her work is called, a thing?
The story follows a lifelong friendship between two women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who grew up in the rough outer edges of Naples. Here, heavy things are constantly being flung from windows, like an iron, thrown by a mistress at her mister's departing family, or the ten-year-old Lila herself, whose father literally throws her onto the street, her thin body flying over Elena's head before landing on the asphalt. Vesuvius overlooks the city ominously, and is more visible from the richer, new development buildings that some characters move into when they marry up.
Heavy things are constantly being flung from windows, like an iron, thrown by a mistress at her mister's departing family, or the ten-year-old Lila herself.
Both Elena and Lila show promise in school, but Elena's parents let her continue to middle school, and Lila's don't. It is then that Elena develops a conviction that drives the entire series: that Lila's intelligence is sharper, more innate, and thus, more real, while her own is simply a result of diligence and imitating the speech, ideas, and airs of her more sophisticated (male) peers. Even after writing several well-received books, Elena feels inferior to Lila, who never left the neighborhood, except for a brief stint when she worked at the aforementioned sausage factory to support her infant son.
"Ferrante is not kind to the reader," Emily Walker, an attendee of the event, told me. Ferrante's candor, or unkindness, to us—her complete lack of cushy lessons or political takeaways—pulls us right in to her characters' skirmishes. "She gives voice to women as a force," says Walker, not something to be demystified, the way men have historically tended to write about women.
When Elena writes a well-selling book that includes a true-to-life sex scene, Gigliola Spagnulo, a childhood friend, tells her: "How brave you were to write those things... just the way it happens, with the same filthiness." Wistfully, she adds, "I should have escaped from here too... but I was born stupid and I can't do anything about it."
It is Lila's brazenness that Elena tries to channel when she wants to rid herself of the male influence in her writing—and it is what makes her a successful writer.
But there is a price to being "a free woman," as Elena learns one evening when a fellow guest of her sister-in-law inserts himself into her bed unsolicited. "What had I intimated about myself, what sort of person did it seem that I was, what legitimatized [his] request?" wonders Elena furiously. "Was it the reputation of a free woman that my book was giving me? Was it the political words I had uttered... to prove that I was as skilful as a man, but defined the entire person, sexual availability included?" This happened shortly after Elena was attacked in an elevator by a well-respected society man, a friend of her mother-in-law.
It is the same "she was asking for it" sentiment we see employed in today's rampant dismissal of women's right to explore sexuality. Elena's fury also brings to mind how often women get rape threats for writing about sex or race or anything potentially contentious on the internet, in the way she is reduced to her sexuality alone when she tries to enter the world of ideas—a male sphere. It is no surprise these books resonate so deeply.
Both Gigliola, who stays in Naples with her abusive husband, and Elena instinctively blame themselves first when men upset them. Elena is drawn to Lila because Lila would never do so. In fact, when Gigliola's husband tells Lila's boss, "Even though she's extremely intelligent, she can't understand what she can do... because she hasn't found a real man," Lila charges at him with an ashtray. It is Lila's brazenness that Elena tries to channel when she wants to rid herself of the male influence in her writing—and it is what makes her a successful writer.
Franco, Elena's rich ex-boyfriend, took her to Paris and taught her how to act sophisticated, shaving off any trace of her Neapolitan roots. Years later, Elena confides to her sister-in-law:
Maybe there's something mistaken in this desire men have to instruct us... I didn't realize that in his wish to transform me was the proof he didn't like me as I was... he wanted the woman he imagined he himself would be if he were a woman. I was an opportunity for him to expand into the feminine, to take possession of it: I constituted the proof of his omnipotence, the demonstration that he knew how to be not only a man in the right way but also a woman. And today when he no longer sees me as part of himself, he feels betrayed.
The 1,500 plus words in this series—real estate we've seen used for stories of men who fight monsters, or men who chronicle all their life's minutiae, but rarely for women, let alone their relationships with other women—nukes the crap out of all that male influence.
Ferrante Fever will pass, and in the future, panels on her books probably won't include sausage factory references or trivia in which the winner scores "Ferrante swag." Her spellbinding story of two women and their life near and far from the stradone, though, is perennial.