Once upon a TIME, there were two girls who lived in the slums of Naples. One was the daughter of a shoemaker; the other, the daughter of a porter. They played together, dared each other, there was an evil magician–or perhaps he was just a terrible old man–there was a lost doll … Suddenly, there’s no turning back, you’re in for the duration. Once Elena Ferrante starts writing about these girls–The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final book in her Neapolitan series, has just been published–you have no choice but to keep reading. The two girls will become women. They will succeed, fail, fall in and out of love and bear children. They will transcend the ignorance and ugliness of their neighborhood and be trapped by it; they will transcend Italy’s expectations for women over the past 60 years and be trapped by them.
But that doesn’t begin to describe the world of Elena Ferrante, the author of four previous novels, which comes to us through the lens of her remarkable translator, Ann Goldstein. We are dealing with masterpieces here, old-fashioned classics, filled with passion and pathos. Never bathos. Ferrante is too precise, too aware of the emotional complexities of any given moment for this story to descend into suds. Unfortunately, there is little straight-out humor, or clever banter–Ferrante is too obsessed for diversions–but, happily, there is no cynicism either.
The sheer power of her books is a challenge to the chilly, dour craftsmanship of too many 21st century literary novels. Ferrante doesn’t observe her characters from a disdainful middle distance. She dives into them, she loves and is appalled and saddened by them. She writes perfect descriptions of the writing process and of creativity, of political action and of sex. But the heart of the work is the tangled friendship of two women, both brilliant, sometimes brutally competitive and absolutely necessary to each other. They are sophisticates in a slum, alienated from their families and frustrated by the feckless men in their lives. In an ancillary triumph, Ferrante shows how men of every stratum can be blockheads. Indeed, the women are each other’s only true family.
We don’t know who Elena Ferrante is; she has been pseudonymous since her first novel in 1992. One assumes “she” has to be a woman; one might even assume that the Neapolitan novels are semiautobiographical, given that the narrator of the books–the porter’s daughter–is named Elena. There is something lovely about her anonymity. It adds to the strange, almost inexplicable, depth of the experience. Having been Anonymous once myself, I know that there is a monkish austerity to it–you can’t go around bragging about your sales–and also that there is a purity to it as well: Elena Ferrante is what she writes. She can be judged only by her work. And her work is magnificent.
This appears in the September 28, 2015 issue of TIME.