A New Film Charts the Spread of “Ferrante Fever”

What accounts for the wild success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels? In a 70-minute film, literary luminaries from the US and Italy survey the mysterious author’s cultural impact.

Ferrante Fever

I have a confession to make: as a native Italian living abroad, I was always skeptical of the Ferrante Fever trend. Having read a selection of Ferrante’s work in Italian, which left me quite lukewarm, I always failed to see the supposed brilliance of the anonymous author of the acclaimed Neapolitan Novels, as there were already many works by other Italian authors that were similar in style and content — Italian fiction is full of women coming undone, and the combination of simple prose and the random “dense” word is fairly common.

Despite my contrarian nature, however, I was enticed by the premise of Ferrante Fever, a documentary that surveys the cultural impact of Ferrante’s work in Italy, where her books originated, and in the US, the epicenter of Ferrante’s worldwide success.

Why have her books been so successful? is a question repeated throughout the 70 minutes of the documentary. In the case of the USA, we have New York Media personalities to thank. “A lot of writers liked them, and that’s a good way of spreading the word,” Ann Goldstein, the revered translator of Ferrante’s work, explains in the documentary.

Directed by Giacomo Durzi, Ferrante Fever takes a two-sided approach to investigating Ferrante’s success and forgoes any element of storytelling throughout the documentary. Rather, its structure resembles a panel discussion, which, given the topic, is not bothersome at all: the expert pool, which includes journalists, scholars, directors, and authors based in both the US and Italy, is articulate enough to keep the viewer engaged with the topic.

American-based experts really emphasize the emotional impact of Ferrante’s opus. “There’s nothing else like them in the history of fiction,” says Michael Reynolds from Europa Editions, Ferrante’s American publisher. “I could not believe that book, I kept gasping and making noises,” says Sarah McNally, the co-owner of McNally Jackson, one of the main cradles of the “Ferrante Fever” phenomenon. Many authors express similar attitudes. In an interview, Elizabeth Strout talks about how “brave” Ferrante’s writing is and the impact it had on her. Jonathan Franzen recalls passages in the books that made him cry, and talks about feeling grief upon finishing the Neapolitan Novels.

By contrast, the Italian interviewees were more eager to talk about structure, character development, and Ferrante’s clever use of archetypes. Directors Mario Martone and Roberto Faenza, who directed, respectively, the movie adaptations of Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, explain how Ferrante’s works have a screenplay-like quality and read “like a crime novel,” with “a strong scaffolding” in their narrative structure, while still making good use of minute details.

Italian author Roberto Saviano, known worldwide for his nonfiction book Gomorrah, enthusiastically describes how Ferrante’s anonymity is an artistic experiment meant to demonstrate that content can speak for itself, and praises the way she depicts the microcosm of Naples in a way that is faithful to its archetypes (family, crime, back alleys) but never slips into cliché. Giulia Zagrebelsky, labeled a “Ferrante Scholar,” explains the pull of the fraught mother-daughter relationships in Ferrante’s books. “The ‘daughters’ characters run as far as they can, physically, from their mothers,” she said. “But to rebuild their own identity, they have to go back to their origins.”

The more analytical approach from the Italian scholarship comes from a national tendency towards being skeptical of someone’s outsized success, and, as a consequence, those who had words of praise for Ferrante had to bring facts over emotional responses to the table. As author Nicola Lagioia put it, “Americans are less judgmental. They tend to appreciate the worth of something successful rather than probe into what’s wrong with it.”

While, personally, I favored the way Italians explained Ferrante’s legacy, it’s clear that both perspectives are necessary. Without the American one, the discussion would have become too academic. Without the Italian one, we would have watched yet another tale of New York Media choosing a token foreign body of work about strong women in a slum-like metropolis.

While Ferrante Fever did not make me change my opinion on Ferrante’s work, it did help me understand the relevance of her books, both for readers craving a page-turner packed with feelings and for scholars studying the evolution of contemporary Italian literature.

Ferrante Fever, directed by Giacomo Durzi, is available on iTunes and is screening at Quad Cinema in Manhattan. It opens on March 29th in Los Angeles, with showings in additional cities to follow. 

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