When we get to the end of the second book in Ferrante’s quartet of novels, we think we see the genesis of that quartet: a twenty-day writing exercise that took the angst out of university graduation for Elena Greco, also called Lenù. Although I struggled through this volume, listening to the voices of teens talking about their confusion and noting their lack of confidence while they strode boldly ahead, all was forgiven in the last one hundred pages.
The girls are now women, having earned a few hard-won truths they will use to the end of their days. The first lessons last longest. Lina and Lenù, the names barely distinguishable when heard, have discovered that in early 1960’s Italy, it is still a man’s world. Lina is unafraid and almost preternaturally resistant to control. She is curious, and furious. She is still the one we look to when we want to know what comes next. Her refusal to take what’s coming to her makes everyone, paradoxically, jealous of her.
Lenù is soft and bosomy and tries very hard to rustle up indignation about world peace, about Lina taking a lover (Lenù’s lover), about her prospects after university. She wants tofeel things as deeply and as ardently as Lina. When she sees Lina again at the end of this novel, we can tell she knows she will never reach those depths. And perhaps it is just as well. One must have the whole package if one is to survive those depths: a fierce, innovative intelligence and an unrelenting determination to survive on one’s own terms.
Put in the context of world literature, this series is developing into something remarkable. The voices of women in a man’s world are so seldom heard without interference or distortion. While that may not be true today, it was certainly true in 1960’s Italy, and to have even a glimpse behind the veil is something precious. But this is fiction, you protest. Ah, nobody could make a world so complete, so filled with recognizable motivations, were it not at least close to a kind of universal truth.
Besides that, there is the style of the work: it is so accessible, so female, so filled with things men would never say, never contemplate saying. We all grew up reading the writing of men, so we can consider ourselves experts. This work is different. It dwells on minutiae. The aspects of characters are raked over, head to foot, for what they reveal about that character’s state of mind and intention. The story slows while we contemplate their dilemmas, and like women everywhere, put ourselves in their place. It is a kind of soap opera, but the very best kind. It is the kind that teaches us something about how the world works and how other have dealt with circumstances we might encounter.
But it may be the language that is the most remarkable thing of all. Throughout the novel we hear Lenù talking about dialect versus Italian, implying that there are things that can be said in Italian that can not be conveyed in dialect. Well, it seems that there is also a kind of alchemy here that relates to the language Ferrante uses that gives us direct access to the hearts and minds of two women on the cusp of adulthood. Other people have tried to do this, but Ferrante has succeeded beyond the borders of her own country, beyond her generation, beyond her sex. When Elena says she went to Lina at the end of the novel to “show her what she had lost and what I had won,” we wait for it…wait for the penny to drop…
“[Lina] was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was as full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other very so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”
Ferrante deserves the attention she has had from this series of novels. It is world-class literature that deserves a place in the pantheon. I am looking forward to Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
For those following this series, or those put off by the covers, please note there is a debate raging in literary circles about just this topic: The Atlantic magazine contributor Emily Harnett wrote a piece explaining the publisher’s point in deciding on the covers as they are.