by Len Lear
It is entirely possible that you have never heard of Elena Ferrante, but millions of fans cannot get enough of her. Ferrante is the most important literary sensation to have emerged from Italy in decades. Her quartet of Neapolitan novels has sold more than 5.5 million copies worldwide. The author has always maintained that the name Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, and there has been intense speculation in the literary world as to the author’s real identity and even whether or not it is really a woman.
(An Italian journalist named Claudio Gatti who investigated the issue thoroughly claimed that Ferrante was really a native of Naples named Anita Raja, but he also wrote that Raja may have collaborated with her husband, Domenico Starnone, also a novelist. Several linguists who have used software to compare his writing to Ferrante’s believe he may even be the primary author of the Neapolitan Quartet.)
The New York Times has written that enthusiasm for the novels is so intense that it is being described in “epidemiological terms, making the phenomenon sound almost like an infectious disease.” And Ferrante fever is likely to heat up even more in the coming months since an Italian/American television adaptation of her first book, “My Brilliant Friend,” is under way. The ultimate aim is to adapt all four Neapolitan novels over 32 episodes. The HBO series is scheduled for sometime this fall, but no specific date has been set.
Ferrante’s most passionate Philadelphia admirer has to be Mt. Airy author Karen Bojar, whose book, “In Search of Elena Ferrante,” was released by McFarland Publishers on July 3. “I wrote this book,” Bojar told us in an interview last week, “to help me unlock the secrets of Elena Ferrante’s power, to better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and that of millions of readers worldwide.
“When I searched for material about Ferrante, I found countless reviews, essays and blog posts but only two full-length studies. I searched without success for a comprehensive study of Ferrante that would explore the complicated interweaving of thematic strands, including analysis of the political dimension, an aspect of Ferrante’s work largely ignored by reviewers. Finally, I decided to try to write the book I wanted to read.”
“Also, changing gender roles is perhaps the great story of our time. Although many readers have seen the Neapolitan Quartet as a searing portrait of man’s inhumanity towards women, I argue that Ferrante’s portrayal of gender roles is far more nuanced, with some of her male characters taking tentative steps towards gender equality.”
Regarding the controversial issue of Ferrante’s real identify, Bojar insisted, “We now know that Ferrante is herself a character, a literary device to conceal the identity of the probable authors Raja and Starnone. Ferrante in numerous interviews explained her desire for anonymity, initially describing her desire for anonymity in personal terms … insisting that a literary work should stand on its own without biographical information or commentary from an author.”
Bojar, who is currently in the process of revising her 2013 book, “Feminism in Philadelphia,” which focused on activism and advocacy (the new book is tentatively titled “Building the Feminist Movement, Building Feminist Institutions: Feminist Activism across the Generations”), loves “big books with a large cast of characters and a vividly drawn social world. I guess my all time favorite is Garcia Marquez’ ‘Hundred Years of Solitude.’ And I love the 19th century English novels I read as a teenager, especially Dickens and the Bronte’s. I really need to read ‘Jane Eyre’ one more time before I check out.”
A professor emerita of English and Women’s Studies at the Community College of Philadelphia, where she founded the women’s studies/gender studies program, Bojar says that “Ferrante shares Tolstoy’s ability to convey characters experiencing contradictory emotions as well as characters like Elena Greco who can present one face to the world, the impression of a ‘good girl’ while seething with resentment and jealousy on the inside.”
A former longtime committeeperson in the 9th Ward Democratic Committee’s 2nd Division, Bojar is also the author of “Green Shoots of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Party.” In the course of writing the Ferrante book, she “realized how much I love literature and literary analysis. I have been writing mostly about social movements and political activism, but at some point I hope to again write about literary works I love.”
One remarkable effect of Ferrante’s novels is that they have significantly increased tourism to Naples. Bojar and her husband visited Naples in March, 1999, as part of a sabbatical year trip to Italy and fell in love with the city. “My love for Ferrante’s books was the impetus for a return trip to Naples,” she said. “We returned in November, 2016, and loved it. And yes, Neapolitan pizza lives up to its reputation.”
Will devoted readers of the Ferrante novels feel differently if it is ever determined definitively that the primary author was a man? “In my recent re-reading of the Neapolitan novels,” Bojar replied, “I forgot all about Anita Raja, Domenico Starnone and Claudio Gatti and became once again totally immersed in the world of (characters) Lila and Elena. This is what counts.”
Bojar will discuss her analysis of Ferrante’s work at Mt. Airy’s Big Blue Marble Bookstore on the afternoon of Sept. 16. For more information, visit karenbojar.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org