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.”
In Ferrante’s world, however, such a dynamic—an author remaining obscure while her translator fields interview requests—seems fitting. As Judith Shulevitz aptly demonstrates in her Atlantic review of The Story of the Lost Child (which will be posted online in mid-September, when the October issue of the magazine comes out), Ferrante does not consider storytelling to be an act anyone truly undertakes alone. The problem of transmission—of stories, of bodies, and lives—preoccupies the author and her narrator through all the layers of metafiction the two “Elenas” offer up. Are daughters bound to become their mothers? Can once-intimate friends ever really separate from one another? To what extent does a writer’s literary achievement render her indebted to the friend who is her muse? Ferrante challenges our ideas about the act of writing itself, so that we are left wondering if a writer’s work always and inevitably contains traces of the words and stories of others that came before it.
Goldstein is careful to emphasize that she does not, and never could, serve as a stand-in for Ferrante, nor does she consider translating to be a reinterpretation or recreation of Ferrante’s work. Still, she sees the enormous popularity of these novels, and the peculiar circumstances of their Italian author, as endowing her with a responsibility of sorts. “Translated books,” she explains, “get so little attention, and I think the idea that this book is a translated book—I think it’s kind of important for the translator to be a presence.” Goldstein wants American readers to know that works translated into English are not, by any stretch of the imagination, lesser works. And being the public face of Ferrante in America seems as good a way as any to go about reinforcing that notion. “It’s a good advertisement,” Goldstein says, “for translated literature, or for literature in translation, of which there is a surprising amount.”
In many ways, what’s different for Goldstein about this book is not that she doesn’t know the author; it’s that people care so much. The endless speculation about who, where, and what Ferrante is does not make much difference to Goldstein’s translation process. In the past, she tells me, “I’ve worked either with dead authors or with people who haven’t been very interventionist.” Ferrante is no exception, as living authors go. “She hasn’t complained about anything,” Goldstein says. When she has questions, Goldstein can email Ferrante’s publishers, who forward them on to the author; Ferrante can respond via email, through her publishers, who forward the responses to Goldstein. As far as Goldstein knows, Ferrante can read English, but does not read drafts of the translated manuscripts. Ferrante’s translator, in short, knows no more about who she is, really, than any of her other readers do. And Goldstein is fine with that.
“I have the idea of the person—of someone who is writing these books, whether this is her life or not,” Goldstein says, and that’s enough. She feels no need to meet Ferrante. “My view of the writer of these books is [that she’s] a woman of the same generation that I am … I guess I picture her, in a way, most clearly, as the person at the very end of the fourth book. Because that’s after all the person who’s writing the books.” To Ann Goldstein, then, Elena Ferrante’s power lies in the person of Elena Greco, whose bracing, thorough examination of her own life through public narrative is a testament to the power of narrative itself. That Greco’s public narrative is fictional hardly matters. For “many of the people who read Ferrante, whether we’re women or men,” Goldstein says, the reading experience involves “looking into our lives … I think she gives you a way of doing that, or a challenge to do that.” Ferrante issues the challenge; but the way in, for English-speakers, is all thanks to Goldstein.