Readers of Elena Ferrante will happily tell you how the books have given them endless pleasure. However, Ferrante’s gift to the lonely world of women academics is priceless: a treasure trove of literary texts over which they can sharpen their analytical tools, compare notes, disagree, and formulate new theories about mother-daughter relationships, the dynamics of patriarchal oppression and strategies for emancipation. Ferrante’s books are a meeting point and a shelter for female scholars, where we can convene and collaborate, like the two brilliant friends of the ‘Neapolitan Quartet’, Elena and Lila, who empower each other to unleash their respective creative potential. Naturally, men are welcome too – if they are willing to share.
It all began in 2015, when US scholars Grace Russo Bullaro and Stephanie Love called for papers for the first collection of academic essays dedicated to Ferrante. I still remember the email Grace sent us all: ‘Friends’, she wrote, ‘you are the pioneers’.
The excitement we felt then lasts to this day. It was there, in the pages of The Works of Elena Ferrante: Reconfiguring the Margins¹, published by Palgrave in December 2016, that the new discipline of Ferrante studies was officially born. Today, teaching Ferrante constitutes part of my coursework on Italian literature at Trinity College, Dublin; but the process has been under way for a while, in the form of conference panels and seminars on Ferrante in Harvard, Oxford, Leeds and other reputable venues, mainly outside Italy. In her home country, where ‘a portion of the Italian cultural world is closed off to women writers’ and their ‘anti-hierarchical viewpoint’, as stated by Tiziana de Rogatis (author of Elena Ferrante’s Key Words²), the uptake of Ferrante studies has been slower.
But it was in Italy, my native Naples in fact, where my first encounter with Ferrante’s work took place, back in my student days. It was February 1996. As I was browsing a book fair with Silvio Perrella (now a famous Italian writer), he suggested we attend a round table on Ferrante’s first novel, L’amore molesto (1992; ‘Troubling Love’, 2006), which had just been turned into a film by Mario Martone. ‘Both the novel and the film are exceptional,’ he said. I had already tried to read the book. I agreed that, yes, Ferrante’s style was unique, but I found Ferrante’s account of the disturbed relationship between Delia and her mother Amalia, a suicide victim, unsettling. I could not finish the book. It was as if this author’s voice were alive and seeped through my subconscious. Today I understand that Delia’s urge to leave Naples and run away from an oppressive, patriarchal society was also my own. Fast forward ten years, by which time I’m living in Dublin and working at Trinity College, and I heard Ferrante mentioned again. ‘Are you an expert in Italian literature?’ I was asked, and expected the usual questions on Pasolini, Eco, Calvino. But no, it was Ferrante everyone in the anglophone world longed to hear about.
This is how I picked up Ferrante’s second novel, The Days of Abandonment (2002 in Italian, 2005 in Ann Goldstein’s extraordinary translation): the gut-wrenching story of Olga, a woman abandoned by her husband, who becomes semi-deranged, crushed by a sense of loss that makes her lose control over space, time, language. We are swept along by Ferrante’s vertiginous stream of consciousness and are devastated too, shattered into tiny fragments, before becoming whole again. When I stayed up all night reading that novel, I knew I was on to something powerful. I had found my next project by which, soon, I became consumed. I noticed the importance Ferrante’s characters attached to everything ‘non-human’, such as plants, animals, technology, objects (doors, dolls, garments) in order to acquire knowledge of themselves and the world. The power, or agency, of the ‘non-human’, sustains Ferrante’s feminist stance against patriarchal values. Women are vulnerable and have been oppressed and dehumanised for centuries, like much of nature and the non-human world. Ferrante is restoring agency to both. This is how I later pioneered that specific strand of Ferrante studies that we call posthumanist or neo-materialist.
In 2012 I read the first volume of the Quartet, My Brilliant Friend, the story of Elena and Lila, who grow up in an obscure Neapolitan neighbourhood and whose lives remain intertwined for over sixty years. This was when worldwide Ferrante fever struck people of diverse nationalities, ages and cultural backgrounds. Speculation about the author’s identity became a staple at dinner parties, while, in the academic arena, linguists began to compare the style of several writers in the hope of unmasking Ferrante using scientific, philological techniques. The truth is, whatever the gender of the author (or authors) in real life, Ferrante says it loud and clear that she identifies as a woman writer. This is all we should be concerned about.
In the meantime, the ‘Neapolitan Quartet’ drew to a close with The Story of the Lost Child (2014; 2015 in English). After selecting two of Ferrante’s novels for the book club I moderate at the Italian Cultural Institute in Dublin and drafting scholarly essays on her work for various journals, I had the pleasure to interview Ann Goldstein in public. It was September 2015. As I prepared for our chat and compared Ann’s English translation to the original, I wondered how she had been able to replicate not just the content but the vehement, unrelenting, emotional flow of Ferrante’s voice. No wonder several people believed Ann herself to be Elena Ferrante. As my colleague Stiliana Milkova (author of Elena Ferrante as World Literature) writes so perceptively, ‘Elena Ferrante’s invisibility has enabled the translator’s visibility’: a tribute long overdue after centuries of indifference towards a profession that allows seminal works of literature to travel across international borders.
In Durham, UK, where the first international conference on Ferrante was held in 2019, I was finally able to meet my brilliant Ferrante studies colleagues in person: Tiziana de Rogatis, Adalgisa Giorgio, Stiliana Milkova, Serena Todesco, Katrin Wehling-Giorgi, to name but a few. And in spite of the pandemic, we continue our collaborations as we analyse the global phenomenon of Ferrante’s storytelling, the books, the theatre, the films and TV series. Ferrante studies are embedded in my university work, with a conference planned later in 2022, and, in 2023, a journal dedicated to her work. Ferrante studies is a gift that keeps on giving.
By Enrica Maria Ferrarte
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