The charm of the writer in a Prague perspective: reading levels, engaging writing and a mysterious identity

What is the recipe for writing a best-seller? It is not easy to answer this question, we would have to ask Dan Brown, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Elena Ferrante, the literary phenomenon of recent years that Time magazine, in 2016, included in the list of the 100 most influential people in the world along with names like Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama and Pope Francis.

If the name of the writer behind the pseudonym “Elena Ferrante” is perhaps, for some, still a mystery, there is however, a certainty: that it is a literary phenomenon of worldwide scope both in terms of the number of languages in which her works have been translated, and above all, by the number of copies sold.

And among the translation languages of her best-sellers, Czech could not be missing, being the language of a country always very attentive towards Italian literature. As a result, the “Ferrante fever” has also broken out in the Czech Republic, which has led to the narrative work going far beyond the purely literary sphere. From the young and old reading circles born in various Czech cities, where we find ourselves reading and commenting on the books of the anonymous writer, to the trips organized in Naples to discover the places described in the novels, many Czech readers experience the appeal of style, both simple and complex at the same time, which is typical of the author. “We started from piazzetta Olivella, near the Montesanto metro station, and then lost ourselves in the alleys of Naples following an itinerary inspired by the novel “My Brilliant Friend””, Jana tells us, a student from Prague who visited Naples for the first time with a group of friends after reading the novel.

Six books of Ferrante have been published in Czech: the tetralogy “Neapolitan Novels” (Geniální přítelkyně, 2016-18) published by the Prostor publishing house, the debut novel “Troubling Love” (Tíživá láska 2018, Prostor) , and the revised translation of “The Days of Abandonment” (Dny opuštění, 2019), released in Czech already in 2012, when however, it did not arouse great interest. In October 2019, on the other hand, “The Lost Daughter” currently being translated, will be published.

To get an idea of the editorial success which has matured in the Czech Republic, it is enough to say that last year the first volume of the “Neapolitan Novels” tetralogy quickly exceeded the 25,000 copies sold. A significant figure if you consider the proportions from the number of inhabitants of the country.

But when and why did the Czechs fall in love with Elena Ferrante? To answer this question, we refer to Alice Flemrová, a professor of Italian literature at Charles IV University in Prague, a renowned and award-winning translator who has been entrusted with the Czech version of the author’s works.

“We can say that the Czech success for Elena Ferrante arrived with the tetralogy of “The Neapolitan Novels”, and it is also demonstrated by the lesser success the works “Troubling Love” and “The Days of Abandonment” achieved. With the tetralogy, the author has managed to write a perfect “popular novel” that lends itself to multiple levels of reading”, says Flemrová, adding that “although not all Czech readers can come to appreciate all the historical, political and sociological undertones in a work embedded in an Italian context, this does not deny them from experiencing the “pleasure of the text”, to quote Roland Barthes”.

We are well-aware, however, that the success of a foreign author in a country other than her own also owes much to the quality of the translation. So we asked Flemrová what the greatest difficulties were in rendering the particular style of this writing in Czech.

“The most difficult thing is always the tone and the rhythm, that is to say the “voice” of the author. I had to be careful to make Elena’s voice heard in its many facets, to make the difference between the mature woman, the girl, the young one felt… Another problem is then cultural mediation: how to translate “Neapolitanisms” into Czech, even if in the books of Ferrante this is often only “underground” or latent?” The results show that Alice’s choices were successful.

Naturally the Czech success of Ferrante has not left literary critics indifferent, who each using their own categories, have tried to provide an explanation to the great success of the author also in the Czech Republic. “How to write a great novel and reach international success, even without knowing how to write”, publicist Aleš Palán asks in Hospodářské noviny in a 2017 slightly provocative article.

Perhaps because when certain themes are touched, writing goes into the background. But what could then be the psychological reasons for the grip that the works of Ferrante have exercised over the tastes of the Czechs? According to Flemrová, “Ferrante’s books are important today, when the tendency towards extreme polarization, to the Manichean vision of the world, is felt too strongly. Ferrante makes us understand a simple thing, namely that nothing and nobody is black or white, and shows it to us in the depths of personal life, as well as on public, political, social and other levels. At the same time, the translator continues, she does not tend however to a postmodern cancellation of traditional, ethical values. In her universe there is good and evil, only it is not an absolute and immutable entity. Literature should have the strength to take me to unknown places, to make me sniff at other people’s lives, it should be a bit voyeuristic… The writer offers just that”.

And it is perhaps the satisfaction of this voyeuristic tendency, which in the end lodges in the mind of most readers, which is the right key to understanding the great success of the author also in the Czech Republic.

But who is Elena Ferrante? Many people have tried to answer this question, including Michele Cortellazzo, Professor of Italian Linguistics at the University of Padua and expert on the similarity between texts and author attribution, committed to recognizing the affinities between the works of Elena Ferrante and those of other contemporary authors. In collaboration with the Department of Italian Studies of the Faculty of Philosophy of the Charles IV University of Prague, he has held some seminars and lectures on the similarity of the writer with other contemporary Italian storytellers in the Czech capital in 2017.

Cortellazzo, together with a team from the University of Padua and after cross-checking the results with studies by other experts abroad, analyzed a body comprising 150 novels (including Ferrante’s 7), the work of 40 different authors, including Niccolò Ammaniti , Alessandro Baricco, Stefano Benni, Domenico Starnone, Dacia Maraini, Margaret Mazzantini, Michela Murgia and others, adopting statistical methods of literary analysis “based on an overall analysis that makes use of the help of means that allow to recognize models, relationships and comparisons among a large number of texts”.

The results of these studies, also presented in Prague, reveal that “Elena Ferrante shows a unique peculiarity in the framework constituted by the authors taken into consideration. This means that her style and lexical choices are different from the stylistic average of contemporary Italian fiction”. But according to the scholar, “Elena Ferrante’s writing does not show particularly strong connections with other authors from Campania, with the exception of Domenico Starnone. There is therefore a very strong similarity, in some respects almost embarrassing, between the writing of Elena Ferrante and that of Domenico Starnone”.

Cortellazzo argues that “author attribution conducted with stylistic methods, even quantitative, are unlikely to lead to conclusions of absolute certainty. In this case, however, all the methods used show that the degree of similarity between the novels of Starnone and those of Elena Ferrante is difficult to find in other exercises of author attribution”.

Can we therefore say with certainty that these two are the same person? We will try to ask Starnone himself, the Neapolitan writer and screenwriter, author of essays, plays and fiction, who will be a guest in Prague next autumn at Charles IV University and of the Italian Cultural Institute, on the occasion of the presentation of some of his works translated into Czech.

by Mauro Ruggiero