The historic center of Naples drips with Old World charm — faded laundry strung between buildings, fish shops spilling tubs of clams and eels onto the sidewalk, pasticcerie tucked near Renaissance churches.
But I was looking for something else. I had come to Naples without a guidebook or even a map, in search of a disheveled neighborhood of “flaking walls” and “scratched doors,” where the “wretched grey” of the buildings clashed with the passion and repression of the characters of the writer Elena Ferrante. Armed only with her series of Neapolitan novels, I was in search of a city that — through four weighty volumes, best sellers both in the United States and Italy — had become a character itself: dangerous, dirty and seductive, the place everyone yearns to leave behind, and the place they can’t shake.
As I discovered during a visit in September, the series of books offered a unique view of this complicated city, leading me away from popular tourist sites and helping to explain the city’s social, economic and geographic divisions. To view the Naples of Ms. Ferrante is to view Naples like a native.
Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym for the author of seven books, most prominently the Neapolitan novels — gritty, unflinching portraits of female friendship set against a backdrop of political and social upheaval in Italy from the 1950s to the present. Ever since the 2012 publication of the series’ first book, “My Brilliant Friend,” Ms. Ferrante has become one of modern literature’s greatest enigmas — media-averse and resolutely anonymous. Even the author’s gender has been cause for speculation; the publisher’s official biography, however, refers to her as a woman, and offers a single personal detail: “Elena Ferrante was born in Naples.”
The quartet of novels — which also includes “The Story of a New Name,”“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and “The Story of the Lost Child”— traces the lives of Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo, two girls from a dismal Naples rione, a neighborhood characterized by poverty, Mafia vendettas, and violence. Born weeks apart in August 1944, the girls — who call each other Lenù and Lila — are best friends and fierce competitors, each spurring the other to stunning academic achievement.
Lenù, cautious and conscientious, eventually escapes the neighborhood through diligent study (and exchanges her childhood nickname for her given name, Elena). Lila, impulsive and daring, blazes through life, eyes narrowed to cracks, a “terrible, dazzling girl” who pushes Lenù to audacious acts — as on the day the pair skip school and, for the first time in their young lives, try to “cross the boundaries of the neighborhood” to discover an invisible presence, “a vague bluish memory”: the sea.
As I strolled west along a narrow street in the historic center, eyes blinded by the late-afternoon sun, with the closely set buildings hemming in the sight of sky and smells of cooking, the sea felt distant indeed. My friend, Paola, said to me: “We call this Spaccanapoli. It means Naples split in half.”
Like many ancient Roman cities, she explained, Naples had been planned along parallel decumanus, roads with an east-west orientation. This particular street cuts through the city’s heart. “The farther east you go,” Paola, a native Napolitana, said, “the poorer the neighborhoods.”
I walked a block or two, and the Gulf of Naples flashed before me, all turquoise twinkle. Was it plausible that 10-year-old Lenù and Lila could have gone their whole lives without glimpsing this port city’s defining feature? The answer, I knew, lay beyond the tourist district, in the shabby streets of their rione.
With the help of Irene Caselli, a Naples native and journalist now based in Buenos Aires, I had come close to identifying their neighborhood: it was almost certainly the Rione Luzzatti. But, she warned me: “It has a dangerous, dirty reputation. Don’t go after dark. Don’t walk alone.”
Rione Luzzatti is bordered to the east by the central train station and to the north by a prison, Poggioreale. “It’s not so far,” said Paola — in fact, it’s less than five miles from the historic center — “but it’s a mental distance.” Given the area’s reputation for crime, I hired a local guide, Francesca Siniscalchi, who, like virtually all the women I met in Naples, is an avid Ferrante fan.
As we meandered through the city in a taxi, Ms. Siniscalchi pointed out sites referred to in the books: the “Rettifilo,” a shopping street where Lila buys her wedding gown; the sprawling Piazza Municipio, where Elena’s father works as a porter; the hulking gray bulk of Liceo Classico Garibaldi, Elena’s high school.
“Her portrayal of Naples isn’t just a postcard — it’s a mosaic of strong, disruptive emotions,” Ms. Siniscalchi said of the books. “She gives an excellent description of all the opportunities lost by every single generation in the south of Italy. When I finished the last book, I cried.”
In the Rione Luzzatti, we found a cluster of dingy, dirt-streaked buildings, their narrow windows curtained by laundry, patches of unkempt grass, litter-strewn sidewalks empty despite the late-summer sunshine. Voices clashed deep within one of the apartment buildings, a hint that people were home and, perhaps, watching us. The bar-pastry shop and shoemaker from the books were missing; a fruit-and-vegetable vendor displayed wares from a truck instead of a horse-drawn cart. But despite these small differences, I needed no leap of imagination to see Elena and Lila’s neighborhood. Here in this “dim and distant rock pile” of “indistinguishable urban debris,” the sea did seem like a fantasy.
After the rione, the glossy elegance of Chiaia, the city’s well-heeled shopping district, hit me like the blow of a stick. As teens, Elena and Lila’s first foray here leaves them astonished by the chic women who seem “to have breathed another air,” Ms. Ferrante writes, “to have learned to walk on wisps of wind.” Though the outing ends in violence, when a pack of wealthy boys calls their group “hicks” and a bloody fight ensues, these streets play a role throughout the series — the luxurious yin to the rione’s desolate yang.
After wandering down the Via Chiaia amid a crowd of stylish locals, I paused at Piazza dei Martiri to look for Solara, the shoe shop Lila decorates with a gigantic, disfigured copy of her bridal portrait, creating an artistic image of her body “cruelly shredded.” Instead I found a Salvatore Ferragamo boutique and, across the majestic plaza, the Feltrinelli bookshop, displaying stacks of Ms. Ferrante’s books.
As Elena and Lila advance from girlhood to middle age, they face an era of tumultuous social upheaval — radical feminism, 1968 demonstrations, friends who dabble in militant Communism — and their youthful hope eventually turns to disillusionment. “I’ve felt the same way — guilty, self-critical,” Annamaria Palermo, a professor at the University of Naples “L’Orientale,” told me. We were in her airy apartment, surrounded by book-lined walls, terra-cotta tile floors, and large windows framing views of the Gulf of Naples. “In 1968, we had so many feelings of power. I was sure we would change everything.”
Ms. Palermo was born in 1943, one year before Ms. Ferrante’s protagonists, to a bourgeois Naples family. Still, she identified with the books. “There is a Neapolitanness that cuts through social levels. She communicates this very well. These novels go deep into our souls,” she said. “I am very attached to this city, but it is like the mermaid of Capri — something enchanting you, but something disgusting you inside,” she said, referring to the sirens from “The Odyssey,” who bewitched sailors to death with their sweet songs.
In the books, Elena and Lila’s battle against the Camorra, the inescapable local Mafia, is their life’s mission, their greatest conflict, depicted as a hopeless, grinding struggle. “The Camorra is part of our history,” said Ms. Siniscalchi, my guide. “It dates to the 17th century. Today, it’s even been linked to the central government. To grow up in Naples is an everyday fight.”
From Ms. Palermo’s sun-splashed terrace, however, the city’s persistent and violent Mafia presence seemed a dark and distant fantasy. In Posillipo, a wealthy residential quarter that faces the gulf, the sea is inescapable, dazzling from every angle.
I thought of a scene in the series’ third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” when Elena takes a solitary walk through Naples at dawn, reflecting upon the city’s landscape and its influence on her entire identity. “Who knows what feeling I would have had about Naples, about myself, if I had waked every morning not in my neighborhood but in one of those buildings along the shore,” she muses.
Before me, the gulf sparkled, an undulating expanse of blue capped by the looming mass of Vesuvius. From here, the rione had completely disappeared.