The literary labors of three women have brought American readers the best-selling Neapolitan novels, which have met with a level of acclaim rare for serious fiction of non-English origins. We know the most about Elena Greco, an Italian woman in her mid-60s who responded to the inexplicable disappearance of her friend Lila by painstakingly recording the story of their decades-long friendship, a “story that [she] thought would never end.” She narrates that story through four volumes: “bold, gorgeous, relentless novels,” as one reviewer has called them.
But Elena Greco is fictional. She is the creation of Elena Ferrante, who is herself a creation. Readers know little more about the author than her name, which isn’t her name at all but a pseudonym. She doesn’t go on book tours or give journalists in-person interviews; the resounding success of her novels is due almost entirely to the merits of the text and the glowing reviews they’ve inspired among critics and lay readers alike.
Last, but certainly not least for those of us who don’t read Italian, is Ann Goldstein, a real woman who lives in New York, goes by her legal name, and is the known translator of the mythical Italian Elenas’ penetrating prose.
Ann Goldstein has a friend who has a theory that she, Goldstein, is “the real Elena Ferrante.” Goldstein, for her part, firmly denies this theory—one of many about Ferrante’s “real” identity that abound in literary circles these days, as devoted readers welcome the publication of the fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, in English this month. Goldstein, who is an editor at The New Yorker by day, has used her nights, weekends, and vacations to translate Ferrante’s books into English for Europa Editions since Ferrante’s pre-Neapolitan novel days. (She’s the translator of a number of other Italian works, too, and the editor of The Complete Works of Primo Levi, also out this fall.) Translated books, Goldstein says, “hardly ever get this much attention.” And when they do, it’s unusual for much of that attention to be directed at the translator. But Ferrante, by insisting on preserving her own anonymity despite her international audience’s growing curiosity, has (perhaps unintentionally) managed to create an unlikely spotlight for her American translator. “It’s a little odd,” Goldstein told me. “It’s very odd.”