One afternoon in April this year, walking with her umbrella under a light rain and a silver-grey sky, a friend of mine and former colleague at university received a call from one of our professors of English literature who told her that she wanted to see us in her office the following week because she had bought something for us: that something, she revealed, was a book. After their conversation my friend called me to tell me the news. For a week then we had been making any sort of conjecture trying to guess what book it might have been. We had a faint clue it might have been My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, but we were not sure at all. “It can’t be a classic, she doesn’t know what we read and what we didn’t,” “What if it’s My Brilliant Friend?,” “It could be, do you think she read it?” “Possible..” and so on went our speculations for an entire week.
By that time, what we knew about Elena Ferrante was not much, but it matched approximately with what most people know about her. We knew that nobody actually knows who she really is as Elena Ferrante is only a pseudonym; we knew that some journalists and critics assumed – and still assume – that behind her name is Domenico Starnone, some others think it’s his wife, Anita Raja, Neapolitan translator who works for E/O, the publishing house which publishes Ferrante’s books; we knew that actually only her editors know her or his identity – to simplify we will go on to assume that she is a woman. – We knew she started her career as a writer in the early ’90s with L’amore molesto – Troubling Love – which became an immediate success in Italy, followed by I giorni dell’abbandono – The Days of Abandonment – published in Italy in 2002. But most of all we knew that Elena Ferrante is the author of a brilliant series of four novels – the Neapolitan Novels – which made anyone who read the first one go crazy for her.
The day of the appointment with our professor finally arrived. After a brief chat, she took out from a drawer a bag containing our present. It wasn’t wrapped in paper so we immediately saw that our conjectures were true and that in the bag there was the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend. Our professor told us that when she began to read the first volume, she got bored at first, the beginning of the book didn’t catch her attention, so she left it on a shelf and read something else. But the engagement of a reader with an unread book is huge and she picked it up and started reading again. “I can’t stop now, I can’t put it down. I’m happy when I come home after work knowing that there is a volume of the Neapolitan Novels waiting for me.” She told us that day. Therefore, filled with curiosity and excitement, I went home and opened the magical book. It was the beginning of my addiction.
In the first volume Elena, the protagonist of the series, along with her friend Lina, tells the story of their childhood and youth in the early 1950s spent in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. The book opens in medias res in the 2000s when Rino, Lina’s son, telephones Elena to tell her that Lina has disappeared, he can’t find her anywhere and she took all her stuff with her. Since that moment Elena, now an elderly woman, decides to write down the story of their lives and friendship. Hence, through a flashback, Elena jumps back to the days of her childhood in the old, rotten neighbourhood. Up to that moment my engagement and the speed with which I turned the pages had been average. But as soon as I reached the point of the first significant episode, just five pages from the start, in which Lina throws Elena’s doll into the horrible and dangerous basement of Don Achille, the pages took control of my mind and that was it.
After My Brilliant Friend, I had to read the second volume, The Story of the New Name. It was just after my birthday that my best friend confessed me that she had no idea whatsoever of what she could give me as a present, so I told her: “Well, there is something I’d like to read.” When one evening she gave me the second volume, she told me that the shop assistant at the bookstore chatted with her for ten minutes telling that when she was reading the Neapolitan Novels, she did nothing else except working and reading and that therefore her house became a pigsty. On the other side of the Atlantic, Molly Fischer from The New Yorker experienced the same feeling of rapture as the shop assistant and I did. In the very first lines of her article on Ferrante’s fiction she wrote: “when I read [the Neapolitan Novels] I find that I never want to stop. I feel vexed by the obstacles—my job, or acquaintances on the subway—that threaten to keep me apart from the books. I mourn separations […]. I am propelled by a ravenous will to keep going.”
When all four novels were over, I let my eyes wandered on the other books on my shelves trying to find something to read next, but it appeared impossible. On the one side, I felt I could read nothing else for a long time, on the other side I was compelled to find another book which could give me at least a parcel of the emotions I felt reading the Neapolitan Novels. A bit reluctantly, I chose Anna Karenina, hoping that the story of another tormented woman could help me overcome the sense of loss I felt when I closed The Story of the Lost Child. And luckily, so it was.