Part social tapestry, part feminist Bildungsroman, this tetralogy shines above all because of its vibrant, unflinching study of friendship
I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante’s trilogy-turned-tetralogy, with the same pleasure I took in books as a kid. Utterly engrossed, I was a little hasty, and felt as if Ferrante had written the story directly for me. I wanted to get back to the novel the way a nine-year-old wants to get back to Harry Potter. As soon as I’d finished, I reached for the second volume (The Story of a New Name); and was frustrated to have to wait for the English translation of the third (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). Now, with the publication of The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth of Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan novels, the circle is closed, the story — insofar as it can be — completed.
Another not inaccurate summary of Ferrante’s endeavour would be a female Bildungsroman, undertaken on an unprecedented scale, with a powerful underlying feminist sensibility. She is determined to explore frankly the struggles and contradictions faced, in the latter half of the 20th century, by an ambitious woman hampered not only by her humble social origins but also by the deeply entrenched gender roles of her time and place. Ferrante is Italy’s answer to Doris Lessing, Elena Greco is her Anna Wulf, and her tetralogy The Golden Notebook of our era.
Politics and feminism are compelling subjects, but won’t make readers long for the novels with the zeal of a nine-year-old. Only the human heart can do that
But this, too, doesn’t quite get to the core of the project. Politics and feminism are compelling and important subjects but they won’t make readers long for the novels with the zeal of a nine-year-old. Only the human heart can do that, the emotionally truthful depiction of the complex web of love, desire, loathing, envy, compassion and pain that binds people over a lifetime. Ultimately, Ferrante has framed her magnum opus — for all its tremendous ambition, and in spite of the tumult of events that resounds through the pages at ever-greater, eventually exhausting, speed — as a simple love story. These books deal above all with the perpetually unrequited but never extinguished Platonic passion between Elena and her childhood friend Raffaella Cerullo, known to Elena as Lila.
From the first pages of My Brilliant Friend (2011), we understand that Lila has disappeared, in 2010, at the age of 66. Unlike Elena, who has at this point been settled in Turin for many years, Lila has never left Naples, and has lived largely in the neighbourhood where the girls were born. Her disappearance is explained, as much as it ever will be, thus: “It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace . . . She never had in mind any sort of flight . . . And she never thought of suicide . . . she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found.”
Lila’s vanishing doesn’t provoke, in Lenù, a predictable distress: rather, “I was really angry.” And more than that: “We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write — all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”
We are to understand that the entire enterprise — well over 1,000 pages — is written out of a competitive impulse that has dogged Lenù’s feelings for Lila their whole lives. Theirs is a childhood “full of violence”, in which Lila, “that terrible, dazzling girl”, is a breezy rebel to Lenù’s studious good girl: “I trained myself to accept readily Lila’s superiority in everything, and even her oppressions.” In these early years, Lenù is convinced that Lila is not only braver but also brainier, a better writer, more imaginative. But in their poor corner of Naples, only one of the girls will go beyond elementary school; on account of her parents’ support, it will be Lenù.
Much of what follows — over decades — is rendered fascinating, perverse and human by the discrepancy between the facts as they unfold, and Lenù’s interpretation of them. For Lenù, Lila’s superiority is a priori, the foundation of their friendship; and so she will find ways to see that superiority — and her own inferiority — where in reality there is none. Lila marries at just 16, and grandly, by the standards of the neighbourhood, to a man who (no different from others in their society) will beat her; she encourages her father, a shoemaker, and her brother Rino to expand into the design and manufacture of luxury shoes, a project that will lead them into partnership with the local Mafiosi. Lenù, meanwhile, does well in her studies, encouraged by her teachers and envied by her classmates, including the handsome Nino Sarratore, whom she fancies.
My Brilliant Friend is the story of Lenù’s and Lila’s girlhood;The Story of a New Name (2012) that of their young womanhood, in which they come into their sexual and intellectual flowering. Lenù leaves Naples to study in Pisa, a departure that opens the world to her: she is no longer bound to the working class, nor to the fate ordained for the girls at birth. Lila, meanwhile, breaks the order in a different, more scandalous way, by taking a lover and abandoning her marriage. Repeatedly, Lenù returns to their differences: “Yes, it’s Lila who makes writing difficult. My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck.”
It would be wrong to imply that the novels are shaped by envy and rage. Lenù’s relationship with Lila remains, through separations and quarrels and reunions, the most important of her life — this is, like Lenù’s sense of Lila’s superiority, a given: when Lila is ill in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) — in which the women face the struggles of young motherhood and divorce — she asks that her friend “Watch me until I fall asleep. Watch me always, even when you leave Naples. That way I’ll know that you see me and I’m at peace.” Theirs is a connection alternately brutal and tender but, above all, so profoundly imbricated that Lenù, at least, can’t conceive of a self independent from Lila: “I had wanted to become something — here was the point — only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”
By the time of the final volume, subtitled “Maturity, Old Age”, the two women are mothers and professionals (Lila has a computer company with her partner Enzo; Lenù is a successful writer and journalist), juggling ex-husbands and current loves. After her divorce, Lenù returns to Naples, initially to a grand apartment in a fancy district, but eventually to the old neighbourhood, to a flat upstairs from Lila’s. Lenù has at last a passionate romance with Nino Sarratore; but he proves cowardly, unable to leave his wife, and Lenù must reconcile her feminist convictions with the role of mistress. Beyond this, she will come to learn of his rampant philandering, and will again have to choose her path.
Lenù has two daughters, Dede and Elsa, with her ex, while Lila has a son, Gennaro (Rino) with hers; but both women become pregnant again — Lenù by Nino, Lila by Enzo — and bear daughters at almost the same time: Imma, Lenù’s daughter, is named after her mother, who is suffering from a terminal illness; Lila’s daughter also bears her grandmother’s name, Nunzia, although she’s called Tina.
For the first time since Lenù left to study in Pisa, the two women are firmly reunited in the enclave of their birth, their friendship renewed and reinforced by their children. They’re so close that when a magazine article about Lenù is illustrated by a photograph of her with Tina, calling the little girl her daughter, the mistake seems almost natural: Lila tells the two girls, “We are mammas of you both and we love you both.” When one of the children disappears, the women, their lives, and their friendship are forever changed, yet again; and the tragedy will lead them, eventually, along divergent paths.
This last volume seems undeniably speedier and more roughly sketched than the earlier books. It is no less compulsively readable for the reader whose commitment to Lila and Lenù is already unshakeable, but it’s not clear that this segment would stand as well on its own. Characterisations are skimmed over, having been set out earlier; dynamics are presumed; the large cast of secondary and peripheral characters is intermittently important, but they remain flat, their histories summarised. In part, the feeling of haste arises because Ferrante covers so much ground — almost 30 years in under 500 pages — and because the political and social elements of the cycle need, here, as much attention as do more intimate relations. But in this last volume, rather than feeling we are living Elena’s life alongside her, we are aware of simply being told, sometimes brusquely, its outlines.
Nevertheless, this reader remains a staunch admirer of Ferrante’s extraordinary project. Even in haste, even with what comes in this instance to feel like a superabundance of plot — an earthquake! Adultery in flagrante! An overdose! A disappearance! An arrest! A bloody murder or two! — the novelist remains true to her broadest undertaking: to write, with as much honesty as possible, the unadorned emotional truths of Elena Greco’s life, from timid peasant schoolgirl to respected literary icon, riven always between her origins and her ambitions, between her intellectual pursuits, her romantic desires, and her maternal responsibilities — always with Lila as her fractured mirror.
I’ve pressed Ferrante’s novels on friends with mixed results. Some fall upon the books with a familiar eagerness, but by no means all: one woman said, of My Brilliant Friend, “How’s it different from Judy Blume? Just girls getting their periods.” But I end up thinking that the people who don’t see Ferrante’s genius are those who can’t face her uncomfortable truths: that women’s friendships are as much about hatred as love; that our projections determine our stories as much as does any fact; that we carry our origins, indelibly, to our graves. To imbue fiction with the undiluted energy of life — to make of it not just words upon a page but a visceral force — is the greatest artistic achievement, worth more than any pretty sentences: Ferrante has done this, if not perfectly, then with a rare brilliance.
Claire Messud is author of ‘The Woman Upstairs’ (Virago/Vintage)
Illustration: Toby Whitebread