Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final novel in her Neopolitan series, has made the final five shortlist for Italy’s Premio Strega prize – and not without controversy.
Ferrante was first nominated for Italy’s biggest prize 23 years ago, with her first novel L’amore molesto (Troubling Love). It didn’t win, and in some ways marked Ferrante’s position as a literary outsider in Italy. She has famously eschewed publicity, with her actual identity being hidden from all except her publishers e/o Europa Editions – a move that initially seemed commercial suicide, but one that now, over the last five years or so, has become in itself a succesful marketing strategy.
So where’s the controversy? Well, the controversy comes from the way Ferrante was originally put forward for the prize, and because of her comments on the prize.
The Premio Strega was initally launched by Maria and Goffredo Bellonci, along with Guido Alberti (the owner of the Strega liquor brand); the Belloncis ran a regular and exclusive literary salon in their home in Rome, and the books were nominated by attendees who became known as the Amici della domenica, or Sunday Friends. Nowadays the prize is run by a foundation set up by the Bellonci, but the principle remains, that 400 ‘friends’, chosen from Italian cultural life, are responsible for choosing the books for the prize. To be nominated, a book must be put forward by at least two ‘Amici’.
Back in February, a high profile voting member, Roberto Saviano – who still lives under police escort, due to the success of his expose of organised crime Gomorra – put forward Ferrante’s latest novel. In an open letter to the novelist he said:
“I’m putting you forward because I believe your presence could help this prize to become anew something vital and genuine, rather than an exchange of votes and favours. Up to now the rule has been ‘this year mine will win, next year yours’ will win’, which is killing the best Italian literary talent”.1
An interesting enough combination, given that Saviano has had to become a very public figure because of his work, sacrificing much of his private life – almost the mirror image of Ferrante, who has guarded her private life to the point where, should she win the Strega it’s clear she won’t be there to recieve the prize.
Ferrante’s response further stirred things up with her response to Saviano, again an open letter, where she elaborated on the pointed nature of the nomination:
“if though L’Amica (the Neopolitan novels in Italian are called L’Amica Geniale, following the usual practices, doesn’t even get into the shortlist, fine, one can definitively say, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Strega as it is is irredeemable, and should be thrown out. In either case [win or lose] the use of my book would consist in propping up for another year a worm-eaten table, waiting to see whether to restore it or chuck it out. ” 2
And so, the stage was set. A critically lauded and best-selling novel, both in Italy and abroad (there aren’t many contemporary Italian novels which can boast of an international audience), published by a relatively small publishing house – pitted against the habitual prize-winning publishing houses like Mondadori.
The initial odds seemed low – Ferrante’s publisher, Sandra Ozzola, told journalists back in May that she didn’t think Ferrante would be shortlisted; she had news of just five or six certain votes.
When the voting came in, though, Ferrante’s novel took 140 votes landing it third place on the shortlist (first was Nicola Lagioia, second Mauro Covacich, fourth Fabio Genovesi, and fifth Marco Santagata). Ferrante thus is the only woman shortlisted for Italy’s premier literary prize in 2015 – something made more problematic by the incessant speculation that, perhaps, Ferrante is a pseudonym for a male writer.
The winner will be announce on the 2nd of July.
1 >> “Propongo te perché credo che la tua presenza possa aiutare questo premio a essere di nuovo qualcosa di vitale e genuino, non solo uno scambio di voti e favori.
2 >> “Se invece l’Amica, secondo la prassi consueta, non entrerà nemmeno in cinquina, benissimo, si potrà dire definitivamente, senza ombra di dubbio, che lo Strega così com’è è irriformabile e che quindi va buttato per aria. In entrambi i casi l’uso del mio libro consisterà nel tenere in piedi per un altro anno un tavolo tarlato, in attesa di vedere se restaurarlo o buttarlo”