Elena Ferrante is a fictional character, one of my favorites: a disembodied person in my head, a mind inside my mind. She occupies a large, elastic space in there, in the same neighborhood with a lot of my real friends and mentors and everyone else with whom I have ever seriously corresponded, even though she’s never written anything that’s strictly just for me. She’s one of my Lilas: a sometimes-close, sometimes-distant friend and rival, who keeps winning by being smarter.
It’s easy for me, as a reader of Ferrante and as a writer and friend to writers myself, to imagine the woman who wrote Ferrante’s books confiding her secret in me. The novels are already a confidence shared intimately with every reader, no two exchanges alike. It’s also easy because this author has shielded her name, body, and biography from public knowledge, but not her persona, which coheres across the letters and interviews collected in Frantumaglia and in her weekly column for the Guardian. The persona is visible even in the novels themselves, which share so many features and preoccupations.
Though the human writer remains invisible—“I believe that books, once they have been written, have no need of their authors,” she told her publisher Sandra Ozzola in 1991—Ferrante does seem to want to be known in this other way, as the implied author or authorial persona who has something to teach us about reading narrative. The Neapolitan Novels, after all, invite us to think a great deal about authorship, as well as fiction writing and its relationship to life, within the figure of their narrator, the writer Elena Greco. In one of the tetralogy’s many reflexive scenes, near the beginning of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Gigliola tells a newly published Lenù:
“I read your book, it’s wonderful, how brave you were to write those things.”
“The things you do on the beach.”
“I don’t do them, the character does.”
“Yes, but you wrote them really well, Lenù, just the way it happens, with the same filthiness. They are secrets that you know only if you’re a woman.”
Gigliola here stands in for many contemporary readers who have no trouble with the paradox of most referential fiction: this happened and it did not happen. She knows Lenù’s novel is fiction, just as Ferrante fans know the Neapolitan Novels are fiction, but she also knows it derives at least some of its power from its relationship to real-world truth. Lenù generally depicts Gigliola, the wife of Michele Solara, as coarse and materialistic, not someone whose aesthetic opinion she’d much respect—and in fact, Gigliola’s comment is typical of the naive readers novelists love to complain about, the kind who, however admiringly, conflate verisimilitude with reality. But Gigliola is also right: Lenù did do the things her fictional character does on the beach.
Reading this, it’s hard not to feel that Ferrante is toying with us. Is she hinting at the truth of her own fictions, “the secrets you only know if you’re a woman”—and if you’re an author? Is she making an ironic joke about the author-reader relationship in general? Or, wait, is she merely invoking the idea of authorial secrets to create a plausible fiction, since everyone knows writers draw from life and have all sorts of feelings about that process and its consequences? I have to admit this uncertainty is part of my pleasure, or unpleasure, as my friend Sarah would say. The ambiguity such moments generate—and the impossibility of ever learning Ferrante’s secrets—keeps these novels open to multiple readings, not to mention rereadings, which invariably involve my own particular construction of Elena Ferrante, a someone and a no one at once.
Though all of Ferrante’s novels have been published under her pseudonym, and all are narrated by educated, Neapolitan-born women telling personal, apparently unmediated stories, the Neapolitan Novels, more than any previous work, seem to invite the reader’s invention of an author. It is her longest work, the only one I would call a life narrative, and, most significantly, the only one to be narrated by an Elena, a name Ferrante long ago gave herself and still claims as “the name that I feel is most mine.” This Elena, moreover, is not just any educated, Neapolitan woman. She is the novelist-theorist Elena Greco, who gets entangled in all sorts of writerly problems over the course of her life and whose writing is the novels, as well as an active agent in their intricate plots.
Surely this is autofiction, not as Serge Doubrovsky first defined it, “fiction of strictly real events or facts,” but as Gérard Genette understands it: an “intentionally contradictory pact” in which an author, through a fictionalized version of herself, seems to tell a true story, but doesn’t. Most autofiction trades on the understanding that the author is just playing, or just theorizing, and not really revealing herself, but Ferrante’s work invites the opposite reading. In giving us two author characters, one inside the text and one outside, who share a given name and birthplace, she tempts us to understand her as an author who fictionalizes her own life story, not by aggrandizing it but by hiding. This, combined with the confessional narration of experiences many readers recognize as “just the way it happens,” suggests that crucial, dangerous aspects of this story existed in life before they found their way into fiction. Even readers versed in Barthes—“who speaks (in the narrative) is not who writes (in real life) and who writes is not who is”—can easily imagine a translation from the real Ferrante to the fictional Greco, a writer who has a private life to protect but who cannot seem to write about anything but herself and the people she knows.
Ferrante lends some support to this theory in Frantumaglia, where she describes her desire for “absolute creative freedom” and to be “sincere to the point where it’s unbearable,” while simultaneously acknowledging the challenges these desires pose, both personally and artistically: “It seems to me that making a clear separation between what we are in life and what we are when we write helps keep self-censorship at bay.” In other words, she has to invent a self, free from personal bonds, if she’s going to write anything good. Yet in her quest for sincerity, she is also careful to distinguish between literary truth and biographical truth:
Writing that is inadequate can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth isn’t founded on any autobiographical or journalistic or legal agreement … Literary truth is the truth released exclusively by words used well, and it is realized entirely in the words that formulate it.
But biographical truth requires qualification, too. When asked by Paolo Di Stefano for Corriere della Sera, “how autobiographical is the story of Elena [Greco]?” Ferrante replies, in her characteristically direct yet elusive manner, “If by autobiography you mean drawing on one’s own experience to feed an invented story, almost entirely. If instead you’re asking whether I’m telling my own personal story, not at all.” In another interview, with Deborah Orr for The Gentlewoman, she argues for a yet more flexible understanding of autobiography, which she frames in terms of process rather than results. She adopts an autobiographical persona, she says, not to tell her own personal story but because it offers surer footing on the path to literary truth: “Using the name Elena helped only to reinforce the truth of the story I was telling … The fictional treatment of biographical material—a treatment that for me is essential—is full of traps. Saying ‘Elena’ has helped to tie myself down to the truth.”
If we take her at her word here, Ferrante’s autofiction harks back to older understandings of the autobiographical novel—works like David Copperfield, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and À la recherche du temps perdu—that are nominally fictional but draw heavily on their authors’ lives and lived experiences. The difference, of course, is the pseudonym. Dickens, Joyce, and Proust all published under their personal names, as do most autofictionists, from Doubrovsky to Sheila Heti. Ferrante refuses to do this, and the choice produces all kinds of ripple effects in her work, inviting us to consider the moral and technical limits of autobiographical writing and especially of autofiction, a genre drenched in cynicism but founded on claims to sincerity.
The choice also protects her. She gets to live entirely in her readers’ minds on the page and entirely in her own life off of it. How, I wonder enviously, was the woman who writes as Elena Ferrante so much smarter than me about this? For me, it’s already too late. There is already a novel out there, written by my legal name, with my picture on the back as a certificate of authenticity and a face to blame if the book disappoints. I could start over as a pseudonym—every day I’m tempted—but I can’t ignore the nagging sense that it’s harder to erase an existing presence than it is to be invisible from the start.
I’m sometimes annoyed that the writer of Elena Ferrante’s novels figured out how to avoid this trap, and I didn’t. But mostly I’m just grateful that she did. In creating Elena Ferrante “entirely in the words that formulate” her, she has helped me, as no other writer or theorist has, to recognize the fantasy of the author that the reader develops in the reading of a book. And this author, in my fantasy, sets traps for narrator and reader alike as a way of identifying and avoiding them herself.
Read Elena Ferrante’s Art of Fiction interview.
Katherine Hill is assistant professor of English at Adelphi University. She is the author of the novels The Violet Hour (2013) and A Short Move (2020).
Excerpted from The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism. © 2020 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.