He said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in a strong engaging Italian.” So thinks Elena Greco, the heroine of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, about Nino, the young man she is just then beginning to fall in love with, in “My Brilliant Friend,” the first book in the series. Nino doesn’t have her best friend Lila’s “capacity to make everything fascinating,” Elena observes coolly, but he is well informed, and when he discusses issues like poverty, he sounds less like a teen-ager than a man, speaking “not generically, in sorrowful accents . . . but concretely, impersonally, citing precise facts.” He also writes for magazines, which impresses Elena, who is herself an aspiring writer.
The four Neapolitan novels cover a period of sixty-odd years, and one of the strengths of the relationship that Elena goes on to have with Nino is the encouragement he gives to her own work. When, as a mother of two young children in her early thirties, she has largely abandoned her writing, he successfully urges her to take it up again. Nino praises her generously: “What I envy most is your ability as a narrator,” he tells her. Because Elena believes in Nino, in his judgment, his admiration has weight.
For a time, anyway. Over the course of years, Elena’s estimation of Nino’s abilities wanes. His ideas become predictable; she finds his desire to be “politically surprising” distasteful. She sees the careerism and pettiness underneath his charming exterior: “He seemed . . . sensitive to the approval of those who had authority and ready to catch out, or even, at times, humiliate out of envy, those who did not yet have enough of it.” These observations coincide with the lessening of her once-overpowering love for him. Even his praise leaves her cold: “I summarized a plot and characters that I was sketching out and he said, Great, very intelligent. But he didn’t convince me, I didn’t believe him.”