Ferrante's novels about Naples force us into a corner: how much is autobiography? After all, her (or his) identity remains a secret. We know nothing about the writer who pens under the name Elena Ferrante. What if "Elena Ferrante" really is her name and she's just reclusive? No matter: we're left with the novels themselves--which force us into the corner of intention and interpretation (I would argue, by design).
On the one hand, we can read the novels as (lightly) veiled autobiographies. In fact, we might even think they're "truer" than a more standard novel since we know next to nothing about the author. After all, she has claimed in an email interview that she had a friend like Lila.
What's more, the author wants us to move in the direction of seeing the novels as autobiography. For example, the criticism of Elena Greco's novel in THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY is exactly the sort of criticism that could be directed at the very book in your hands: obsessively personal, vulgar, unfair, too revelatory, too easily based on the character's own life, etc. With hints like these, we're tempted to read the author into the novel in the very absence of said author.
On the other hand, we're also tempted to divorce the novels from the author. Elena Greco cannot be Ferrante, whose actual first novel bears little resemblance to the novel that Elena Greco has written. And if Ferrante were married into a public, intellectual family in Italy as Elena Greco is, we'd certainly know who she is. So perhaps the novel in your hands has nothing to do with Ferrante's identity.
Here's where it gets tricky. Those two poles--"it's about the author" and "it's not about the author"--are in fact the poles that hold up the interpretive debate about any piece of art: literature, painting, sculpture, music, and even architecture.
When I went off to college in the late '70s, the dominant critical theory was called the "new criticism," popularized by certain English professors at Vanderbilt and Cambridge. The main tenet was, to put it baldly, that the artist's life had nothing to do with the work created. In fact, even the historical context of the work didn't matter. Instead, you are confronted with a poem, a painting, a piece of drama in your own moment--right now. You don't have access to the past moment's the author lived. You can't know them. You can't even construct them. To do so is to engage in what was called the "intentional fallacy." How can you know what an author intended? You can do little more than guess. You only have your current moment. It's all that matters in understanding the piece before you. (Thus, new critical professors would pass out Shakespearean sonnets and Bob Dylan songs together because both are "ahistorical" works of art.)
But such a stance seems too rigid, too bound by its theory. Don't we need to know something about English-European relations to understand Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? Don't we need to know something about the Civil War to read Emily Dickinson's poems?
Yes to both. But with reservations. It can all go too far. Does it matter that Henry James was a closeted homosexual when you read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY? Does it matter that Faulkner was a drunk when you read his novels?
I would say "no" to both. Yet nuance is important. Does Beethoven's deafness alter our understanding of the last symphonies? Yes and no. Does Rembrandt's use of his wife and children in his paintings deepen our understanding of the works? Yes and no. Does Eudora Welty's left-wing politics alter the discussion of her short stories? Yes and no.
Where do you draw the line? Can you read Virginia Woolf without reading her biography? Absolutely. Do her personal struggles show up in her novels? Absolutely. Does knowing about them make the novels clearer? Here I would add a controversial "no." In fact, reading Woolf's novels through her own depression throws out a dreaded red herring. MRS. DALLOWAY is not a veiled suicide wish. It is a complex and befuddling piece of art about how we experience the passing of time.
Art both escapes its creator and remains enmired with her or him. It's a muddle that Ferrante is forcing us to experience at every turn.