Elena Ferrante’s phenomenal success in recent years has made her, perhaps, the best-known Italian author on an international stage (ironically, given the author’s notorious secrecy). Her success is well-deserved (we were championing her here, at TMO, when – to rob a phrase from Myles naGcopaleen, it was neither profitable nor popular), but it has tended, of late, to monopolise the conversation on Italian writing; there are a whole range of excellent contemporary Italian writers whose work is readily available in English, so here we’ve put together a brief introduction to some of those writers we think you should check out.
Erri de Luca, born in Naples in 1950 is one of Italy’s most prolific, radical, and critically rated novelists – one who is becoming increasingly known in the English language reading world (he has already won various Italian, French, and German prizes, and in 2013 won the European Prize for Literature). De Luca has a number of his works published in English, including Me, You, The Day Before Happiness, Three Horses: A Novel, and perhaps his best-known work God’s Mountain (Montedidio), which tells the story of a young boy coming of age in the crowded streets of Naples. Biblical, poetic, philosophical and a political radical, De Luca’s work is well worth checking out.
Read The Trench, a story by Di Lucca, online in the New Yorker Magazine
Dacia Maraini, born in 1936, in Fiesole, to a Sicilian Mother and a father with a Ticinese, English and Polish background, is one of Italy’s leading intellectuals, having won both the Premio Campiello (for La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa, published in English as The Silent Duchess ) and the Premio Strega (for Buio ). Maraini has led an extremely colourful life – her family fled fascism in Europe, only to be imprisoned in a camp in Japan during the war years. On their return to Italy, they lived in Palermo – at that time a poor and very ‘closed’ and repressed society, as Maraini put it in interview. Opposing fascism and sexism have been cornerstones of Maraini’s work. In the sixties, she – along with her partner Alberto Moravia and Enzo Siciliano / founded the del Porcospino theatre company, a cutting-edge company whose collaborators included Carlo Emilio Gadda and Pier Paolo Pasolini. ‘Regularly tipped for big prizes (her name has been linked to the Nobel prize several times), she’s been widely translated, but you can’t help but feel that she remains overlooked on the international stage.
Read the first chapter of The Silent Duchess online here
Margaret Mazzantini, born in Dublin, Ireland in 1961 to an Irish mother and Italian Father is both a an award winning novelist and actress. After an itinerant childhood that included periods in Ireland, Spain and Morocco, Mazzantini grew up in Tivoli in Lazio. She studied drama at the prestigious Accademia d’Arte Drammatica Silvio d’Amico in Rome (whose alumni have included the likes of Anna Magnani, Vittorio Gassman, and Giancarlo Giannini to name just a few). During the 1980s Mazzantini had a succesful stage and film career, before publishing her first novel, Il Catino di Zinco in 1994,which won the premio Campiello of that year (up against writers of the calibre of Antonio Tabucchi) . In 2001 her novel Non Ti Muovere was published to widespread critical and public acclaim. It won prizes, sold over 2 million copies and was translated into 35 different languages, including English (title: Don’t Move). It was also made into a film starring Penelope Cruz and Sergio Castellitto (Mazzantini’s husband in real life). Twice Born, her other major novel available in English, was published in 2009 (Italian title Venuto al Mondo), and set between Rome and Sarajevo, dealing with themes of motherhood and war. Her 2011 novel, Morning Sea again took a theme of displacement, telling the story of some Libyan Refugees fleeing to Italy. Talking, in interview with PEN, she spoke of writing: “For me, literature is a revolutionary force, it requires courage and risk-taking, it must have the ability to thrust you out of your comfort zone, take you on a dangerous journey, a journey into the unknown, and then bring you back to the centre of yourself.”
Viola di Grado is one of the bright new hopes on the Italian literary landscape. Born in Catania, Sicily in 1987, her first novel Settanta acrilico trenta lana (English title 70% Acrylic 30% Wool), won her the first novel award in the Premio Campiello, and made her the youngest finalist in the Premio Strega. Her second novel Hollow Heart published in 2015 has had equal success, garnering her important critical acclaim. In 2016 she took the dramatic step of leaving her major publisher in Italy (Bompiani), to sign up with the new publishing project founded by Elisabetta Sgarbi and the late Umberto Eco, La Nave di Teseo. Her themes, thus far, have been alienation and the difficulty of comunication.
Paolo Giordano, physicist, novelist and journalist, born in 1982 in Turin, achieved incredible success both in Italy and internationally with his debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers. The novel, which has also been turned into a film (directed by Saverio Costanzo and starring Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Marinelli, and Isabella Rossellini). Reviewing the novel, which has struck a particular chord with Italy’s thirty-somethings (selling more than a million copies), Liesl Schillinger wrote “The story — the explanation, really — of how two people come to find solitude more comforting than companionship is the subtle work of Giordano’s haunting novel, a finely tuned machine powered by the perverse mechanics of need.” Giordano’s following two novels have also been published in English – The Human Body, and Like Family
Elena Ferrante is not the only Italian author to hide their identity from the public. In 1999 Luther Blisset published Q, a best-selling novel set in16th century central Europe, during the peasant riots. The novel was also given away free online, introducing a completely new publishing paradigm. Blisset was not one author though, but rather a collaborative project by a number of Bologna based authors. In 2000 four of the authors set up a new identity, Wu Ming, which can mean anonymous in Chinese. Guerrilla novelists, Art terrorists, and a band of militant storytellers. Wu Ming have collectively written the brilliant novels 54 and Manituana. Individually the authors publish under the format of Wu Ming and their numeral, so for example Wu Ming 1, Wu Ming 2 etc.
Their novels are available to buy or for free download here
Born in Trieste in 1939, Claudio Magris is perhaps the most European of the novelists on this list, in the sense that much of his work looks outwards from Italy’s borders. Magris is an Academic, teaching German Literature in the University of Trieste, and one of Italy’s leading public intellectuals, writing newspaper columns for the Corriere della Sera . One of his main areas of interest has been the idea of Mitteleuropa, and one of his best know books Danube examines Europe via one of its most famous rivers. Described by Magris himself as a ‘drowned novel’, Danube, according to Richard Flanagan, writing in The Guardian, “seems to be slyly inventing something profoundly new, while all the time pretending to be simply retelling stories that gather along the course of a river.” Magris reflecting on one of his other great books published in English, Blindly wrote “[it is] all a monologue, a delirious monologue wherein other voices flow, interweave, override.” It tells the story of a man in an asylum, who confuses himself with various figures from history, and has himself seen terrible moments (Magris is particularly interested in the troubled border between Italy and Yugoslavia in the aftermath of the second world war). A profoundly important writer on both a European and Italian level.
Melania Mazzucco, born in Rome in 1966, has written award winning novels, plays, and work for both cinema and radio. Perhaps her best known novel is Vita, a novel that spans a century and examines Italian emmigration to America. It’s a novel that won many plaudits, including A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and a place on the Publisher’s Weekly top ten translated books for 2005. Compared favourably to the work of W.G Sebald, the novel brings together photographs and stories, blending documentary and fiction to capture the emigrant’s experience. Her novel Limbo took, as its main character a female sergeant, returned wounded from Afghanistan – an important novel, offering a very different perspective on the conflict. in 2014 her novel Sei Come Sei was subject to protests by fascist students outside one of Rome’s high-schools, offended by the novel’s subject of a same-sex marriage. Aside from her critical acclaim, when fascists start protesting about your books that’s a good enough reason for a recomendation in our book.
Domenico Starnone has written up to 20 books – 8 of which are novels, numerous screenplays, and is a regular contributor to Italian newspapers. Born in Naples in 1943, his first career was as a schoolteacher (and much of his work has been set around schools), before he became a full time writer in the early ’90s. His book First Execution has been described as “a brilliant novel brimful of ideas and theories about politics, education, terrorism, war and justice” His novel Ties, translated into English by award winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, is a powerful short novel about marriage, family, and the consequences of one’s actions upon both. Starnone is published in English by Europa Editions, which led at one stage to idle speculation that he might be the author behind the Elena Ferrante identity. Forget about that idle speculation, and enjoy Starnone in his own right.
Italy is the home of the giallo, the detective novel, and Carlo Lucarelli is a master of the form. He has written various novels, as well as presenting the documentary series Blu notte misteri d’Italia. His English language detective De Luca trilogy (Carte Blanche, The Damned Season, and Via delle Ocche), set during the dying days of Fascism in the Republic of Salò and in the immediate postwar period, are brilliantly constructed and subvert the genre, in the footsteps of the likes of Leonardo Sciascia. His examination of power, the political, and justice are done cleverly within the framework of the detective novel. He subverts it as only a master of the genre can.
Niccolò Ammaniti is one of Italy’s best selling authors, and not surprisingly as he, perhaps more than any other, has managed to tap into the zeitgeist of the Italian millenial. His protagonists, often children, live in an Italy as far away from the romantic, idealised settings so often painted by non-Italian novelists; they’re the marginalised, forgotten ones, and Ammaniti with page-turning skill puts them through their paces. Several of his books have been translated into English including the wonderful Crossroads (Come Dio Comanda) and I’m not Scared (Io non ho paura), both of which have been made into great films (Io non ho paura was directed by Gabriele Salvatores, the Oscar winning director of Mediterraneo). Ammaniti is certainly less experimental than many on this list, but he remains one of the best storytellers on the list.
Alessandro Baricco, born in Turin in 1958, is an important figure on the Italian literary scene, not just for his own books – six of which are available in English – but also because of his founding of the Holden School (named after Salinger’s character in Catcher in the Rye, which in Italian is actually titled Il giovane Holden) for writing. Through that school, and his own writing, he has influenced a whole new generation of Italian writers (two of whom are on this list), looking towards the United States and the worlds of film and music. His theatre piece Novecento. Un monologo, which was later turned into one of Giueseppe Tornatore’s best loved films, La leggenda del pianista sull’oceano. His subject matter and settings have varied wildly – City is set in modern day America, while Silk is a historical novel set in Japan in the 1800s, for example – but the one thread that binds all his work is this love of storytelling, and a belief in the transformative power of stories. Reviewing City, the Independent newspaper wrote “along with flashes of love it reveals for old-fashioned storytelling, City boldly displays its futurist credentials…Baricco’s narrative virtuosity continues to astonish”
Read Without Blood, a piece of fiction published in the New Yorker
Roberto Saviano is not strictly speaking a novelist, although his books Gomorrah and Zero,Zero,Zero use literary and storytelling techniques to examine the world of organised crime, both in Italy and globally. His book Gomorrah became a publishing sensation in Italy, and led to death threats from the Camorra – the Neopolitan crime syndicate. Saviano has been living under police escort since 2006. He has been criticised (unfairly in our opinion) for his use of uncredited sources like wikipedia and various newspapers, but his work is primarily the creation of a narrative through which readers can understand the seemingly inexplicable power of organised crime. Saviano has described himself as a non-fiction novelist, in the manner of Truman Capote. Gomorrah in particular is a vital book for anyone who wants to get an understanding of power and politics in 21st Century Italy, and who wants a great read at the same time.
Francesca Melandri‘s debut novel Eva Dorme (English language title: Eva Sleeps), was snapped up by Italian publisher Mondadori within days of being read by it’s chief editor – a clever decision as the book has become a best-seller, winner of an Elle magazine book of the Year Award, and will soon become a film. Melandri, who lives in Rome is an interesting character – her first attempts at writing were short stories written in English, while she ttravelled around Asia, and while they were rejected by publishers they did spur her on to develop a career in screenwriting for TV. Her novel Eva Sleeps, published in English by Europa Editions (Ferrante’s publisher) is set in a little publicised moment of Italian history, the violent repression of German Culture in the Northern Italian border regions, and the terrorist movements that fought the state. It’s a novel about culture and identity, and marks Melandri out as a writer to keep an eye on .
Pietro Grossi‘s Fists, a collection of short stories published by Pushkin Press (The Italian collection, called Pugni, published by Sellerio Editore.) was rightly short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. It’s a dazzlingly written collection of three portraits of young men learning the realities of adult life. Grossi, born in Florence in 1978, attended Alessandro Barricco’s famous Holden School (as did Paolo Giordano), a school for storytelling, film-making and everything inbetween. His style has been likened to both Hemmingway and JD Salinger, with a focus on sparse, muscular language. His novel Enchantment (again, published by Pushkin Press) examines the complex interactions and dramatic consequences of the conflict between our best-laid plans and those that others lay for us.