The face behind the elusive Elena Ferrante, at least in the English-speaking world, is Ann Goldstein, the American writer whose masterful translations have made Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan quartet available to English readers. Ahead of the publication of Ferrante’s newest book, The Lying Life of Adults—the novel, in a translation by Goldstein out this Tuesday from Europa Editions, has already been optioned for a Netflix original series—Goldstein recommends the best books about Italy’s historic cities, ranging from little-known gems by Pier Paolo Pasolini to outside looks into Rome and Naples by Elizabeth Bowen and Shirley Hazzard. At these books’ core are details that transport the reader—Emanuele Trevi, for instance, “is a writer who often wanders around Rome. In his new novel, Sogni e favole (not yet available in English), he describes a street I know well, the Via dei Cappellari,” says Goldstein. “But he describes a detail that I hadn’t known, a plaque indicating the birthplace of the poet Metastasio. At a moment when I have no idea when I might be able to return to Italy, it is comforting—a comfort tinged with frustration and nostalgia—to think about being in Rome.”
Something Written, by Emanuele Trevi
This is a memoir of a period that Trevi, obsessed with Pasolini’s last, unfinished novel, Petrolio, spent working at the Pasolini Foundation, in Rome. It’s a coming-of-age story that combines literary criticism, historical research, and a portrait of Laura Betti, an actress who was the head of the foundation and a close friend of Pasolini’s.
The Street Kids and A Violent Life, by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pasolini is much better known here in the U.S. as a filmmaker, but these novels from the 1950s about boys living on the underside of Rome take readers through the city with a different view from that of the guidebooks. It’s the Rome of another time, written from an unfamiliar perspective, but it’s recognizable, and you could still walk its map: the bridges over the Tiber, the streets of Trastevere and Monteverde, the benches and paths in the Borghese gardens, the arch of Santa Bibiana on the way to San Lorenzo. Even the descriptions of places that no longer exist can transport you.
A Time in Rome, by Elizabeth Bowen
This is an account of three months the British writer Elizabeth Bowen spent in Rome in the late 50s. It’s an elegant, vivid mixture of impressions, history, architecture, and reflection: “Inside Rome, to be anything but walking is estrangement.”
The Bay of Noon, by Shirley Hazzard
The Bay of Noon is set in postwar Naples (a city whose “assets are … secret,” writes the Australian novelist), and, similarly to the other books in this list, has a strong sense of place. In it, a young Hazzard explores Naples, the Italians, and her own heart and mind.