The Neapolitan Novels explore relationships in a style typical of Elena Ferrante.
Elena Ferrante is the buzzword. Jhumpa Lahiri, Mona Simpson and Zadie Smith rave over her work and critics like James Wood dish out high praise. For a writer who steers clear of publicity, Ferrante’s work has been piled high with praise of the top order. Her work has been called: ‘women on the verge’, ‘angry Jane Austen’, ‘the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of’, ‘a celebration of anger’, ‘without limits and beyond genre’, ‘nothing like this has ever been published’ and much more.
But celebrated as she is, she is very elusive. All that people have gathered from her correspondence is, she has studied the classics, is a mother, and no longer married. She translates and teaches, and has lived outside Italy although born in Naples. It’s not known if Ferrante is her real name. She writes in Italian, and her translator is Ann Goldstein.
It’s reported that Ferrante opted to be anonymous as she submitted her first manuscript to the publisher. She said ‘if her book(s) had something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not they won’t.’ There would be ‘an indispensable minimum interviews’ in writing, No discussions, book festivals or attending award functions, if any came her way. This was in 1991; and she remains so in 2015, as her seventh book, The Story of the Lost Child, has grabbed readers in ‘Ferrante Fever’.
Ferrante’s tremendous popularity started with the appearance of the English translation of The Days of Abandonment (Italian, 2002) in 2005. The story opens: ‘One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.’
This is the story of 38 year-old Olga from Turin, who had no respect for ‘cultured women who broke like knick-knacks in the hands of their straying men’. She thought them ‘sentimental fools’ and wanted to be different when she abandoned her writing aspirations to become a mother and a wife. Although Olga becomes emotionally excessive once she sees her husband walking along with a new lover, she returns to being Olga, in testimony of her strength.
The intense voice of the author intrigued readers and announced the arrival of a writer whose anger had a literary quality. Her style had a timbre of primitive strength. Readers were eager to read more, and her debut novel Troubling Love (Italian, 1992) came out in English in 2006, followed by The Lost Daughter (Italian, 2006) in 2008. Troubling Love is the story of a daughter trailing the life of her dead mother. The Lost Daughter is about a middle-aged divorcee teacher who is confronted in retrospective by the unconventional choices she made as mother. Lost or abandoned mothers and daughters and their tumultuous relations are a leitmotif in Ferrante’s books.
It’s but with the publication of My Brilliant Friend in 2012 (Italian, 2011) that Ferrante took the English reading world by storm. The first book of a quartet, this is an epic narrative of female friendship between Lila and Elena or Lenù set in 1950s and onward in a shadowy part of Naples. The book opens in 2010 when Lenù is informed of Lila’s disappearance by the latter’s son. And a disappearance which is total: Lila erases all traces of her presence as she leaves, including her books, her dresses, her movies and even her computer. She even cuts out her pictures from all the photographs in the house. And it’s only Lenù who knows that Lila had always wanted to do that. Lenù waits to see if Lila gets back in touch. But she doesn’t. She gets angry and says ‘let’s see who wins this time.’ And Lenù, who is a writer by profession, turns on the computer and starts a narration which covers six decades in roughly 1200 pages and four books.
The Neapolitan Novels, as they are now known, are a significant change in style from Ferrante’s first books; these are slow horizontal explorations of relationships between two women related by a bond of more than blood. And apart from the microcosmic view of the particular travails of the two girls, it also documents a post-war 20th century Italy where industrialisation changes social norms of gender and sexuality.
Lila and Lenù are only eight when they meet and Lila impresses Lenù by her sheer bold wickedness and boyish behaviour. The shoe-maker’s daughter and porter’s daughter respectively, grow up together in an impecunious neighbourhood where speaking Italian is a mark of finesse and the dialect reveals their rough milieu. This is Naples, dominated by violence and abuse of women. Their neighbours are working class; bakers, carpenters and fruit-and-vegetable sellers. But the male-dominated world does not deter the young companions in their yearning for a different life. The love of reading binds them close, and it’s Lila who usually leads by her nerve and brilliance.
Lila, who is not allowed to join middle school, focuses her aspirations on other worldly things. She is bold, beautiful, entrepreneurial, ‘an electronic wizard who had begun to operate computers in the late sixties’. Although a drop out, she helps out Lenù with her Greek and Latin. The close friendship is also a breeding ground of intensive rivalry, and throughout their life Lila has the upper hand. The intensive internal dialogue of feminine minds that’s portrayed in developing these two characters is nothing short of extraordinary. Ferrante sketches here a model of femininity which is far from conventional.
When Lila marries a neighbourhood boy with a tainted past at the end of Book One, Lenù tells us that the marriage is over. The Story of a New Name (Italian, 2012; English, 2013), the second book, is about Lila’s troubled marriage and Lenù’s laurels at the university and authorship. The third book Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Italian, 2013; English, 2014) is about Lenù’s progress as an author and her marriage travails. But in both the books, Lila does not deign to give Lenù the appreciation she craves. She drops a copy Lenù’s debut novel into the fire in one instance and mocks Lenù’s remarks when the latter calls up to announce her winning an award. When Lenù has a daughter and tries to discuss her childbirth with Lila, she dismisses it with the remark, ‘Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.’ The jealousy is palpable, but so is the affection between the two women. They both are capable of leaving anyone else but each other.
The final book titled The Story of the Lost Child looks at Lenù, who had left her childhood home in the earlier books, moving back to Naples and Lila. It opens thus: “From October 1976 until 1979, when I returned to Naples to live, I avoided resuming a steady relationship with Lila. But it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t forget the contempt with which she had treated me.” Lenù goes on to tolerate Lila and the novel examines female identity in various incarnations; friends, mothers, and more, in a tapestry that is woven in the earlier stories.
Ferrante emphasises one fact in all her books, no one can escape one’s past. And Lenù is resigned to not meeting Lila again. Ferrante doesn’t quite give us closure. Elena Greco or Lenù is the survivor of the tale, literally; while Raffaella Cerullo or Lila is the winner, and I still cannot make out whom I like more. To the reader in me, Elena Greco does not seem too far a personality from Elena Ferrante.