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Karen Bojar: In search of Elena Ferrante

Please join us as welcome back store favorite Karen Bojar as she launches her next book, a study of author and authorship in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels.

Bojar says of her work: I wrote this book 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. I wanted to explore gender and class in the works, and to address questions about Ferrante’s identity – especially the issue of whether the books’ author is female, or even more than one person.

I was introduced to Ferrante by James Woods’ January 2013 New Yorker article, which made a compelling case for Ferrante. I was not disappointed. Since then I’ve read all her books at least three times. Yet when I searched for articles that explored her work comprehensively, I found little, and nearly nothing 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.

In Search of Elena Ferrante explores the international reaction to Ferrante, dubbed “Ferrante Fever,” the controversy surrounding Ferrante’s decision to write under a pseudonym, and the special challenges posed by a work in translation. I draw on the many insights Ann Goldstein has provided into the process of translating Ferrante’s work, along with her sense of the themes and preoccupations of the elusive author. Furthermore, Ferrante, in numerous interviews conducted solely through letters and email, has provided a running commentary on her work. I cannot recall another instance when readers have had the benefit of both the author’s and translator’s insights into the creative process.

What I found as I searched intrigued and challenged me – especially the building evidence that “Ferrante” is the combined voice of Anita Raja and her husband, Domenico Starnone. When I first encountered this information I dismissed it out of hand - I had made up my mind that it was impossible that a man could have written any part of this deeply felt account of female experience; there were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. The whole experience has challenged some of my assumptions about literature—principally that there is such a thing as an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such. As Ferrante herself has said in her collection of interviews and letters, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, “A good writer, male or female can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.”

So does all this matter? I question whether we will read the novels differently if we know that the author is not a woman drawing on her own experience of class and gender discrimination, for in my recent re-reading of the Neapolitan novels, I forgot all about Anita Raja and Domenico Starnone. As soon as I entered the books, I became once again totally immersed in the world of Lila and Elena. This is what counts.

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Dr. Karen Bojar is Professor Emerita of English and Women’s Studies at the Community College of Philadelphia. She also has a long history as a feminist activist and served as President of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women from 2001-2009. She continues to be involved in Philadelphia NOW and in Philadelphia politics and was recently appointed to the Mayor’s Commission for Women. She has written numerous articles on feminist activism as well Teaching Feminist Activism co-edited with Nancy Naples (Routledge, 2002) and recently published, Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982 which interweaves the history of feminism in Philadelphia with the broad themes and trajectory of the “second wave” feminist movement.
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