Over three days this summer, before the unmasking of the identity of Italy’s most famous writer, Elena Ferrante, I sat down on our terrace in Italy to read and review for you Ferrante’s first three novels translated into English. My Italian friends insisted they were even better that The Quartet. They were right. And The Lost Daughter is the best of all of them.
I’ve decided to publish my reviews as I wrote them this summer, before the unveiling. She will always be for me ‘the writer Elena Ferrante’. I read and reviewed the complete Neapolitan Quartet exactly a year ago, on the same terrace, overlooking the mountains of the Alpi Apuane in Northern Tuscany. They disturbed and excited me. Ferrante today plays a large role in my literary life and I suspect she always will. No one rivets me quite like Elena Ferrante.
So here are my #RivetingReviews of Elena Ferrante’s first three novels in English – all translated by the incomparable Ann Goldstein, all published in the UK by Europa Editions.
The narrator Olga is thirty-eight, a burgeoning writer, a mother of two children, married to Mario, a successful academic and living in Turin.
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me… closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.
So begins this ground-breaking, earth-shattering novel, with the breakdown of Olga and Mario’s ‘happy’ marriage after fifteen years; the first novel from Ferrante to be translated into English, setting out for us the confident tone, bold ideas, razor-sharp observations and precipitous literary heights that reverberate through all her work; as if, with these early novels, she is building up to her War and Peace, her Anna Karenina (Ferrante obviously loves Tolstoy) – the famous Naples Quartet. Olga is ofcourse originally from Naples. Ferrante’s defining links with Naples are ever-present.
The women we meet in her novels are all in some way like Olga – obsessive, fearless and trying to understand the absence of sense – the phrase that Mario uses about this own life and their marriage when he leaves her. But Olga is the one to examine this absence, not Mario, who quickly moves on to a new life, leaving her to imprison herself within the four walls of her mind, her life and her home in Turin.
‘Happiness’ is rare in Ferrante’s books and marriages are rarely ‘happy’. The breakdown of this marriage and this woman’s life is described in intimate detail. Olga documents her personal hell after discovering her husband’s infidelity; the depths of her self-degradation; the cruelty, obscenity, perversion and violence she becomes capable of; her animal madness and the monster she unleashes in herself as she goes to the darkest depths of myself and before she is able to return to some kind of adult normality. Ultimately she does not follow her much-read Anna Karenina to her death but instead enters a whirlpool sucking me in, emerging to find a form of enlightenment, not happiness but enough ‘sense’ to live with.
No other writer I know delves as deeply into a woman’s heart and mind as Ferrante, and with such beautiful, lyrical and scorchingly hot prose. As a reader I feel I’m swimming in a whirlpool of excruciating honesty.
Olga is different from Ferrante’s later heroines in that she is initially likeable and straightforward. A protagonist you care for, can like and feel sympathy with when her beloved husband leaves her and her children.
Life had been drained out of me like blood and saliva and mucus from a patient during an operation.
But as always Ferrante ends up risking the alienation of her readers by making her characters quite unpleasant and unlikable in their self-destruction and self-analysis. I doubt Ferrante cares. She doesn’t need to care. This is immersive, essential, honest, painful and vital writing. No wonder, I often think, she wishes to remain anonymous. This way she enjoys total artistic freedom.
What can we deduce about the identity of Ferrante from this book, and the issues and style that reappear in future novels? She knows about motherhood, marriage and children; about friendship, grief, academia, the writer’s life, publishing; she knows about clothes, dressmaking and fabrics (!); she knows Italy and especially Naples and has obviously travelled internationally.
How literary and lyrical Olga is! Like the women in most of Ferrante’s novels she loves words, books and writing. I myself jotted down whole chunks of her novels, so as to imprint their depth and detail on my brain. For example, this, on grief: I was the sentinel of grief, keeping watch along with a crowd of dead words. And on writing: I spent the warm mornings of early autumn sitting on a bench in the rocky garden, writing. In appearance they were notes for a possible book, at least that’s what I called them. I wanted to cut myself to pieces—I said to myself—I wanted to study myself with precision and cruelty, recount the evil of these terrible months completely. And finally: In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.