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“Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”
So wrote Elena Ferrante in a correspondence with The New Yorker’s James Wood. This lovely quip is intended as justification of Ferrante’s preference for anonymity (probably pseudonymity); why she insists on being reclusive, out-hermitting even Pynchon. We know that she’s a she because she identifies as a mother and that, as Dayna Tortorici sallied, “no man would write so well and not take credit for it”.
But Ferrante’s penchant for hermitude also serves another function; once the work is done, it’s done, and the text becomes irrevocably dis-entwined from the author—they become a reader, or an interpreter, of their own creation. So, no, Dumbledore is not gay just because J.K. Rowling says so. If there is nothing in the text proper that affirms a reading, that reading cannot be said to have meaning. So, ironically, we glean something else from Ferrante. Her prose is obviously judiciously styled. These are works that have been laboured over.
Finally, the quote reveals the inner workings of the publishing industry—review copies get sent out, reviews get sent in, sales begin, reports are generated. Either it all goes well, middlingly, or not. Authors are literally powerless in the face of reviews.
The reviews themselves are worthy of a quick tangent: there are two types of review. One is as simple as ascertaining whether a book is good, worth reading and why. The other, more interesting, fruitful and discursive type, puts the book under rigid (sometimes psycho-) analysis, deconstructs themes and language and bugaboos and constructions, and what makes something flawed beyond the boring “good and bad” dichotomy.
Ordinarily I would opt for the latter, but in this rare instance I’ll do the former, after some patter about the author.
Ferrante has been around forever but has achieved prominence in the anglosphere only this decade. Her Neapolitan novels, a four-part series that has been compared to Proust (of course), Marias, and Knausgaard in its ambition, scope, and minutiae, have been heralded as the most important contributions to literature in the century thus far.
While that claim might be a tad hyperbolic (Sergia de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity and McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing take that particular trophy in my estimation), it is by no means unfounded.
The Neapolitan novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend, arch the parabolic and algorithmic curves of a relationship between two women: the camaraderie, the competitiveness, the bifurcating life choices and, shiningly, the love and warmth of genuine human connection.
There’s anger here too, and candour; not even Fellini went to such lengths to disabuse people of the whole “Mediterranean as cultured opulent paradise” thing. Parts are staggeringly bleak, rendered more so by the nonchalant voice in which they are imparted; the visceral depiction of lower-socioeconomic areas, the “sewers”, rings true with savage authenticity and offer a glimpse into an Italy rarely broached.
This lack of exotification is refreshing, but it does not impede the sheer readability of the works. These are words and worlds and people you’ll want to get lost in, and real life might pale a little in comparison afterwards. Which is to say: as well as a literary-masterwork, Ferrante has contrived herself a good ol’-fashioned page-turner saga. Do not take these books into the bathroom unless you want haemorrhoids (although I speak from experience when I say: totally worth it).
So basically: The Neapolitan series is superb. You should buy it, read it, read it ten times more, lend your copy out, buy another one, rinse, repeat. Y’know how Mitchell, Knausgaard, Lee, James, Child, maybe Philip Roth and maybe Ali Smith all have novels coming out this year? If I had to choose, I would happily defer the release date of all of those titles indefinitely if it meant I could get my grubby mitts on the fourth and final instalment, due to be published September of this year. That is how good it is; it’s the kind of book so good that it renders lesser efforts not just minor but pointless and extraneous—at least, when there are books like these to be read.