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July 20 2019
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A scene from the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, based on the novels of Elena Ferrante.

“Elena Ferrante? Yes, I’ve read her, but I’m not wild about her. She’s much more popular among you Americans.”

This remark, tossed off with a dismissive shrug by an elegant woman with whom I’d struck up a conversation in the formaggi e salumi department of Turin’s upscale market Eataly, was typical of the reactions I have encountered from numerous Italians when I mention their famous compatriot, the author who has sold millions of books in 40 countries, and who in 2016 was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Sisterhood, Italian-Style

As an expatriate in Italy who has admired Ferrante both in translation and in the original, I had, perhaps naively, expected to witness a swelling of pride among Italians at the emergence on their soil of a major literary talent whose work has captivated an international audience. I’d anticipated adulation particularly among women, since Ferrante’s powerful voice is uncompromisingly female—and one could argue that the opening of this millennium is the time of women’s voices.

In 2016, when the author’s magnificent quartet of Neapolitan novels appeared in English, Ferrante fever spread exponentially, attracting a global following that included Hillary Clinton and Jonathan Franzen. In Italy, however, this explosive fame was met with a kind of public bemusement, a muted enthusiasm all the more striking in a society that reveres the bella figura, the art of making a glorious impressive splash in the eyes of the world.

Certainly, Ferrante has been appreciated in Italy: nominated for the prestigious Strega Prize, lauded by distinguished fellow writers and scholars, her work made into an acclaimed series on HBO. But her entrance onto the international stage also touched off a surge of hostile coverage in the Italian press that seemed to go beyond the usual envious grumbling that is inevitable in literary circles from New York to Tokyo. Ferrante was criticized for every possible failing: for being too sentimental, for being too harsh; for being overly feminist, for not being feminist enough; for offering a sensationalized view of Naples, for being too brutally realistic. One journalist called Ferrante’s work banal, Cosmopolitan-style writing, no different from Fifty Shades of Grey, while another snarkily concluded that Ferrante is probably better translated into English.

One journalist called Ferrante’s writing banal, Cosmopolitan-style writing,
no different from Fifty Shades of Grey.

Added to the stream of criticism were attacks on the author’s decision to write under a pen name—a decision made at the beginning of her career in the 1990s—that never seemed to seriously disturb anyone until she became a success. At that point, the search for her true identity spawned a virtual industry as journalists employed near-forensic tactics to vet a horde of literary personalities—both male and female—for the role of Real Ferrante. The climax came in 2016 with a sensational, though unconfirmed, unmasking of the author as the Rome-based writer and translator Anita Raja.

All the turmoil shows what deep discomfort Ferrante can evoke in her compatriots. I was so intrigued by this that I began to ask opinions of the author among Italians of different ages and backgrounds. In my informal survey, I found many who admired her books, but many more who did not. Those who did not were almost all female. The reasons were vague: some said the characters were unsympathetic, that the emotions described were overwrought, or that there was too much brutality, or there was something in the writing they “just didn’t like.”

The timeworn adage that no one is a prophet in his—or her—own country may be enough to explain this indifference and outright hostility. But I believe there is a deeper reason: it is that Italians were not ready to see an author soar to prominence by telling the truth of a woman’s life. Such telling is not yet acceptable in a country like Italy, where women’s truths are still held in low esteem, often by women themselves. (This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that in 1926 Italy provided one of the earliest female Nobel laureates in literature, Grazia Deledda.)

It is no secret that, in the advanced nation of Italy, one of the great unresolved issues is sexism, the position of women. With its patriarchal Catholic underpinnings and its national character still influenced by the misogynistic vulgarity of ex–prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the country continues to show disturbing trends—nearly 45 percent of Italian women between the ages of 14 and 65 say they have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. The international #MeToo movement has been treated as more of a joke by Italians, and the international press has scooped up recent stories in which Italian judges—sometimes female—blame women for their rapes and acquit the rapists.

The international #MeToo movement has
been treated as more of a joke.

These issues have inspired public activism, but the discourse, compared with other countries, is muted. If there is one thing I myself have observed in 20 years in Italy, it is the universal dislike of airing uncomfortable private realities “in the piazza.” This is particularly true for Italian women who have been caught in a lifelong web of omertà about the validity of their stories, their anger and pain.

Ferrante breaks through the web, powerfully and inexorably putting women in the forefront. Not by making feminist declarations but by simple revelation. She takes us inside the heart and soul of a woman, and through female eyes we view dreams and ambitions, love affairs, friendships, families, cities, an entire society in a certain swath of history. She makes accurate, often harsh observations about how the sexes interact, which perhaps are more palatable in translation, at a distance. We foreigners recognize Ferrante’s characters and situations as universal—as we do those of, say, Tolstoy—but the quotidian details described are not ours, so the descriptions are not as personal, or painful. But, for Italians, this kind of narrative set among the intimate framework of their own recent history is nothing short of revolutionary, and sometimes unbearable.

The Italian journalist and author Raffaella R. Ferré thoughtfully discusses this in an article describing her own belated conversion to loving Ferrante. At first influenced by the negative commentary, she unexpectedly finds herself mirrored in, then entranced by, the characters and insights of these novels that express “a woman trying to understand herself, and others.” Ferré ends by admitting that the novels reflect not just her own life but that of most Italian women. “We are all reading [the novels] … even those of us who believe we are not,” she writes. And by “reading” Ferré means “living.”

For me, the Ferrante problem was illuminated by the haunting words of a friend’s mother, a 90-year-old woman now living in London who was born in the Naples the author describes. My friend’s mother declared flatly that she did not like Ferrante’s work. And why was that? “It’s too raw,” she said.

And by “raw” she meant?

“Real. It’s too real.”

Andrea Lee is a writer and novelist based in Turin.

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