The Neapolitan Quartet – Book One
Translated by Ann Goldstein
2012, pp. 336, Paperback
$ 18.00 / £ 10.99
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Elena Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila. Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a quartet, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction.
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The complexities of love and marriage have sustained novelists from Jane Austen to Elena Ferrante. What do they tell us?
According to Anthony Trollope, “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” The marriage plot is considered one of the oldest narrative structures in literary history, originating with the troubadour poets and extending to contemporary novels and modern popular culture.
A line from François de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t ever heard love talked about,” forms the epigraph of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Similarly, Alain de Botton quotes the same epigraph from de La Rochefoucauld in a New York Times article, using “that brilliant observer of human foibles” to strengthen his point: our style of loving is, to a significant extent, determined by what the prevailing environment dictates.
The complexities of marriage have provided ample fodder for novelists from Jane Austen to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Here are some of them. (…)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best-known contemporary novelists, who remains an enigma as she refuses the glare of publicity, preferring her fiction to represent her. In the first of her four Neapolitan novels, the heroine Elena Greco writes of Nino (her soon-to-be husband) that “he said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in strong, engaging Italian.”
A reader of these novels will be able to study the changing landscape of the heroine’s marriage, the cooling of her ardour with time as she develops her own confidence and career. Ferrante explores the dilemma of marital crisis. “What could I do to keep my life and my children together?” asks Elena, a quandary faced by many women in the throes of a marital breakdown.
I came upon Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels quite late, when the translations of all four novels in the quartet had been published. I binge-read them. I drank them in like iced water on a hot day and, drinking too quickly, soon got a headache. Innumerable things big and small within the pages – incidents, images, single phrases – evoked that aching rush of feelings, a mix of “shaking my head” recognition, love and rage, which is how the best fiction works. Hadn’t one lived so much of this? The scruffy beloved dolls of childhood; the first experience of reading Little Women; the first time Lila writes a story. The fierce friendship of bold little girls in a world defined and controlled by men. As they grow up, their instinctive awareness of the need to strategise constantly, to camouflage their intelligence and reveal only flashes of it: “How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.” On being a woman Ferrante’s epic saga contains everything about being a thinking, feeling, independent woman in the twentieth century: relationships, motherhood, the writing life, the life of work, sexual harassment, politics, sexism in the academy, the search for identity, choices. Disappointment, sometimes despair, but also compassion, solidarity and survival. Here, for instance, is the silent rage of the neighbourhood women: “As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighbourhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs.” And here is Lenu’s unforgettable description of Lila’s marriage: “The condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.” Here is Lila’s resilience, her struggle to make and remake her identity even in the midst of brutal circumstances: designing shoes that other men will sell; designing a shop from which other men will profit; using black tape and paste to cut up her own photographic image in a brilliant act of disfigurement that symbolises not only her rage at being turned into an object, but also her unknowability, and the impossibility of reducing her to any one thing. And here is Lenu’s discipline, her intellectual growth, her struggle to escape the environment into which she had been born (“We had seen our fathers beat our mothers from childhood.”), to find her way through higher education, marriage, motherhood and writing, discovering her own narrative and herself as she retells the story of her friend’s wilful act of disappearance. In the novels, Lila and Lenu were both born in August 1944. I felt a small pang of emotion when I saw, in the index of The Story of a New Name, the mention of this detail. My mind took these fragments – a month, a year – and transported me to the Bombay neighbourhood of Matunga. My mother had been born in 1944. It was a time when India had not yet gained freedom from colonial rule. Growing up in that great commercial city, among immigrant families from the South, my mother was the first woman to graduate in her family. On the face of it, there is little to connect the lives of two fictional girls in a novel set in an impoverished, crime-ridden, deeply patriarchal neighbourhood in Naples with the life of my mother as I imagined her, a well-behaved little girl growing up in fifties’ India, in a comfortable middle-class family in Matunga, with braided hair, wearing a long pavadai, walking to the nearby South Indian Education Society school with her friends. Making connections But fiction makes unfathomable connections, and never in straight lines. I remember vividly an incident involving my mother and our neighbour’s child. We lived in Calcutta then, in a modern apartment building facing the lake. Our neighbours on the same floor were a family with two small children, a boy and a girl. Both fathers travelled constantly, leaving the mothers to raise the children. The women became close friends and the doors between the apartments remained open all day. One evening, our neighbours’ toddler cut her fingers while playing in their kitchen. As she screamed in pain, her mother was paralysed with fear. My mother ran in, with us behind her, saw what had happened, grabbed the child, called to my sister and me to come along, pushed all of us into the car – me, my sister, our neighbour, their little boy – and rushed us to the doctor. I asked my mother about that incident many years later. I had always known that she was capable and efficient, that she knew what to do in emergencies. People came to her for advice. But for a split second, before she whisked us into the car, my fear had been: what if she forgets to take us with her? My mother laughed: “How could I forget my children? I would sooner forget my eyes or my hands!” I thought of these words when I read about Lenu taking her little girls with her, one child holding her hand, a baby sleeping in a pram, as she attends demonstrations, lectures and events. Long descriptions of men arguing about politics, and suddenly the voices fade away as Lenu, urged by Lila (“Think what it means to have a small child”) goes to help a young woman manage a crying baby. A long family lunch in Naples with a local strongman shouting wildly, and in the midst of it all, Lenu shooting a reassuring glance at her little daughter, knowing Dede is frightened by the shouting. Has anyone written about motherhood in the way that Ferrante has? About how, even in the world of ideas and politics, one must always keep an eye on the children, for they must be dressed, fed, sent to school, and looked after. “Sooner forget my eyes or my hands.” Perhaps I am a bad reader. I knew Ferrante wrote under a pseudonym, but I never really obsessed over who she could be in ‘real’ life. The novels, which contain the “bare and throbbing heart” that Lenu describes, are more ‘real’ than any investigative report about royalty payments and real estate.
The Return; Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey; Solar Bones
The letters and interviews in Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (trans Ann Goldstein, Europa), reveal all you ever need to know about the author of the Neapolitan Quartet, apart from the trifling matter of her identity.
Everyone Is Watching; Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe
My cooking, cleaning and driving hours have been filled with Hillary Huber reading Elena Ferrante’s Naples quartet (trans Ann Goldstein, Europa/Blackstone). Not all writers adapt well to unabridged audiobookery; Ferrante, translated, does.
A scholar of the Italian language explores the ‘dissolving margins’ between Ferrante’s novels and Lahiri’s Italian work.
In the six years that he spent in Mumbai as a teacher of the Italian language at Mumbai University, Roberto Bertilaccio acquainted himself with Hindi as well as bookstores around the city. But when he moved to Delhi in 2015, to concurrently teach Italian at Delhi University and Jamia Milia Islamia, Bertilaccio was surprised to find Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s books in the bestseller sections of bookstores in the capital. His linguistic worlds were melding into each other as he watched the global appreciation for Ferrante, the Neapolitan quartet and the “exotic” appeal of Naples for the Anglophone world, as well as the buzz around Pulitzer-winning American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Italian.
That’s what got Bertilaccio to look into the works of both these acclaimed authors – who have a huge following in the Anglophone world – with a view to exploring common elements. To begin with, there is Ann Goldstein, the editor at the American magazine New Yorker, who has translated Ferrante’s books from Italian to English, as well as Lahiri’s Italian book In Altre Parole into the English In Other Words. Having immersed herself in the Italian language for much of the last decade, Lahiri moved to Rome, and has, at several literary fora, explained her reasons for not translating her own work in Italian into her prima lingua English.
However, Bertilaccio says he felt no uneasiness while reading In Altre Parole. “I was aware that the writer is not Italian and it isn’t her language. It is also not a novel and so the expectations were different. I did not feel any gap or distortion between whatever she is talking about and the style. I did not find her choice of word strange or unnatural or naive.”
Drawing on the critique of Ferrante by Tiziana De Rogatis, a professor at Università per Stranieri di Siena, Bertilaccio notes the common elements between Ferrante’s characters and Lahiri’s evolution with the Italian language as nothing short of “smarginatura”.
Ferrante has created new literary models of female identity, explains Bertilaccio. But while her characters are secure in themselves, even in their struggles, sometimes they are on the verge of crises, constantly struggling between choices.
“Smarginatura” – a word that Ferrante employs in her novels – cannot be easily translated into English. Goldstein has worded it as “dissolving margins” across Ferrante’s now-famous Neapolitan quartet. Said Bertilaccio, “Smarginatura is the experience of Lila, Ferrante’s character, right from the first book of the quartet My Brilliant Friend. Across all four books, Lila is in and out of margins. Compared to her friend Elena, she is the one who is constantly exposing herself (to situations) and is thus seen as less defensive.”
This exposing of oneself is extremely painful and yet vital for metamorphosis, and Lahiri, says Dr Bertilaccio, has expressed this kind of metamorphosis as important to her too, especially as she grasped the Italian language.
But Lahiri’s admiration of Ferrante, and of her own “smarginatura”, goes beyond mere fandom. Lahiri has previously spoken about how, having read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment in English, she felt the desperate need to read it in Italian, and she did so as she developed her own skill as a reader of the language. She said:
“It was one of those reading experiences that changed my life, pushed me over the edge as a reader of the Italian language. I decided to write two letters to Ferrante, because I felt this was the only way I could express what effect she had had on me as a reader. I wrote to her about her choice as an author to be present solely in terms of her writing, at least for our consumption and accessibility, and my admiration for this radical step to not participate in the publication of her books…”
Giving her a vision beyond the surface, “smarginatura” happens unwillingly to Lila. For Lahiri to put herself in the uncomfortable situation of not just learning but also writing in a new language is also about seeing beyond the surface, even it that might cost her her self image.
Bertilaccio feels that Ferrante has influenced Lahiri’s writing style in the Italian. In Altre Parole was born out of a collection of essays that Lahiri wrote during the one-and-a-half years she lived in Rome, and was invited to write for the politics and literary magazine Internazionale about her experiences in Italy and with the language. “The complete book as it is today is much more complex and is a mix of genre.” Said Bertilaccio. “On the one hand, it is like a journal as she follows her experience in a chronological way, while on the other hand, it is a coming-of-age book: a child (in language) becomes an adult, through different experiences, becomes more aware. The book is also a theory on literature and writing.”
He elaborated on this inspiration: “Apart from ‘smarginatura’, the idea of ‘sorveglianza’ or ‘watchfulness’ is typical of Lila, whereby the woman is acutely aware of whatever is happening to her and her children. The word can denote the act of policing, but in this context it is the psychological state typical of women. Lahiri’s writing has that kind of ‘sorveglianza’, about her own literary steps into Italian, with a continuous questioning of her own explorations, to reach some clarity, in each chapter.”
Lahiri’s journey also mirrors the “innesto” as experienced by another Ferrante character Leda. In The Lost Daughter (not part of the quartet) Leda abandons her two daughters for three years to escape from her unhappiness over the failure of “innesto” or “graft” – bonding – with her children. “Lahiri says her approach to the Italian language was also ‘innesto’, a graft, because inserting grafts are risky,” said Bertilaccio. “For Lahiri, the possibly ‘wrong graft’ with its imperfections is the premise of her book. For her, the frustration and the imperfection of a new linguistic process puts her closer to a new way of creativity.”
In Altre Parole is divided into different chapters, each with a title that is a metaphor, which is about Lahiri’s process of learning the different linguistic and cultural nuances of the language during her journey. Lahiri, Bertilaccio asserts, chooses to write from such a context of displacement.
Ferrante is absconding from her real identity by creating a new one, but is also speaking openly about her childhood experiences, her vision of global politics, through her publisher. In her new collection of essays and interviews, titled Frantumaglia – another word that is difficult to translate and could be best understood as debris – she recounts her childhood, adolescence, and her life as a teacher. “Ferrante is thus described as a character: not just as an author whose story isn’t known, but one with an identity and a story of the past,” said Bertilaccio.
But Lahiri has been erasing her English literary background and starting from scratch as a writer in Italian, throwing herself into the mouth of a new language, by ignoring her own existence as an award-winning writer in English.
“Here in Italy where I am very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever…every day when i speak and write in Italian, I meet with imperfection…this reveals that I am not rooted in this language…Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new imperfection? What does this offer to me? I would say, a stunning clarity, a more profound imperfection…Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity…It stimulates…the more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive. I have been writing since a child to forget my imperfections, in order to hide in the background of life. In a certain sense, writing is an extended homage to imperfection…I consider a book alive only during the writing. Afterwards, at least for me, it dies.”
In this episode Autumn and Kendra discuss The Elegance of the Hedgehog and My Brilliant Friend. Do protagonists have to be likable? What role does education play in the lives of Elena and Lina in My Brilliant Friend? Listen and join the conversation on Goodreads or other social media!
Books Mentioned in This Podcast
Rewriting the Aeneid in the Neapolitan Novels
The acclaimed series of novels known as the Neapolitan Quartet traces the long, complex friendship between two women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, as they come of age against the backdrop of Naples, Italy. Elena Ferrante, their pseudonymous — though controversially unmasked — creator, studied Classics and admits to the presence of its “traces” in her work.
One ancient text that has left a deep imprint in these novels is the Aeneid, especially Dido, the Carthaginian queen who has an affair with the titular hero, Aeneas. Elena, the narrator, recalls how the teenage Lila quickly devoured the epic:
She talked in great detail about Dido, a figure I knew nothing about, I heard that name for the first time not at school but from her. And one afternoon she made an observation that impressed me deeply. She said, “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”
When Elena then states that “people will fall in love” with Lila and “suffer like that Dido,” Lila counters, “No, they’ll go and find someone else, just like Aeneas, who eventually settled down with the daughter of a king.”
This conversation so affects Elena that she later writes a high school paper and university thesis on the Dido episode. But it also speaks volumes about how Ferrante has written Vergil’s epic into her feminist tale and suggests valuable ways of reading the Aeneid.
Ferrante upends the long tradition of male-focused epic by populating the center of her magnum opus with women and courting them as readers. Even the book covers of the U.S. editions present unapologetic images of femininity that recall books marketed to women. Some have regarded these covers as incompatible with Ferrante’s literary (i.e. “masculine”) aspirations, but her fiction defiantly refuses to dress itself up for the reading male eye. Lila’s reading of the Aeneid illuminates and affirms Ferrante’s marked orientation toward women, and in this Lila differs strikingly from Elena, who readily transforms herself to appeal to men.
A repeated proposition in the Aeneid is that amor (“love”), both feminine and feminizing, impairs the male sphere of labor (“work”). As Dido succumbs to erotic desire her urban project halts: “the towers, begun, cease to rise (non coeptae adsurgunt turres, 4.86).” Lila inverts this idea, making amor the enlivening force without which the masculine space of the city is sterile.
It is unsurprising that an impoverished girl would read the Aeneid differently from Vergil’s original elite male audience. Lila, like Dido, inhabits a world designed to exclude her, but to her it is women’s domain where men occupy the periphery. For her, Dido is not an obstacle blocking the male hero but the epic’s vibrant center, and Aeneas matters only insofar as he affects her. Assessing one of many love triangles between a man and two women (which Aeneas, Dido, and Lavinia foreshadow), Elena rightly observes, “The boy had had scant importance in that story.”
Despite the masculine violence of its streets, the Neapolitan neighborhood Lila and Elena inhabit, seen through their eyes, is a markedly feminine, apolitical space focused on the domestic upheavals of private life. Its women, from the heartbroken widow Melina to the trans woman Alfonso, teem with dynamic energy. Lila in particular becomes the neighborhood’s vital, female center and blooms within its borders.
Elena, who becomes a successful author, finds the neighborhood and her gender confining. She instead studies subjects that unlock male spaces, mimics the masculine language of politics, and imitates the dress of women who marry elite men. She thus manufactures herself using “tools perfected by men” to elicit their admiring gaze: “No one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men.” The result is a contrived identity devoid of the innate creativity that Lila locates in women.
Elena only gradually repudiates her privileging of the masculine. The character that initially elicits Elena’s strongest disgust is her mother, whose marked limp suggests fixity within her private, female domain. Pregnancy-induced sciatica leaves Elena herself with a telling limp, which she first loathes but later describes as a “pleasingly distinctive gait.” In the end, social distinction comes only through reincorporating the feminine into herself, and it will be granted to her not by men, but by the women who constitute the majority of her readers.
Like Elena, Vergil’s Aeneas rejects the feminine as he remakes himself as a hero of pietas (“duty”) toward the public interests of Rome. As he proceeds from Troy to Italy, he divests himself of his personal desires, especially when they elicit in him the “feminine” qualities of love and rage. These are forces instead to be kept in check through masculine imperium, “command” or “power.”
Elena too conceives of rage, which is fundamentally a response to powerlessness, as feminine. Angrily confronting a lover’s infidelity, she ponders, “Am I always this furious other … I, who if I could would kill this man, plunge a knife into his heart with all my strength? Should I restrain this shadow — my mother, all our female ancestors?”
Neither Elena nor Aeneas ultimately restrains the shadow of the feminine. Aeneas submits to fury as war embroils him in the epic’s second half, and he perpetrates death with gruesome impiety. Lila’s reading in fact prioritizes this furious Aeneas, whose moral ambiguity disquiets readers and undermines the easy simplicity of a pious hero. “Dutiful Aeneas,” barren of feminine energy, is to Lila something of a sterile figure, easily overlooked in favor of the enraged Dido, the victim of Aeneas’s pietas.
Class is another theme of the novels articulated in Lila and Elena’s exchange about the Aeneid. Here Aeneas replaces Dido with the more marriageable Lavinia, a king’s daughter. Elena undertakes a project of self-fashioning to become an elite Lavinia-figure suitable for the ambitious Nino, for whose love Lila is her chief rival. But Elena is also Aeneas, who forges new social identity through marriage. The Aeneid is thus recast as a journey up the social ladder.
An education centered on Classical languages, historically the province of the elite, provides the first step up. Though initially Lila also studies Latin and goes on to teach herself some Greek, her formal education is abruptly halted at the end of the fifth grade. Elena, however, achieves a university education, graduating with a degree in Classics and marrying a Classics professor, Pietro, whom she likens to a “boundary stone” into elite society.
Elena’s ascent out of the social underworld of the neighborhood parallels Aeneas’s trip back from the land of the dead, which likewise occurred in the Neapolitan outskirts. The neighborhood is accessed through a tunnel on the stradone that runs through it, which evokes the tunnels around the Bay of Naples thought to be entrances to hell.
It is not until fifth grade — after which their paths fork most decisively — that Lila and Elena first sneak through the tunnel. Whereas Elena longs to walk all the way to the sea, fear strikes Lila, turning them back. She later confesses to Elena, “The better and truer you feel, the farther away you go. If I merely pass through the tunnel of the stradone, I’m scared.” Lila, unlike Elena, is at home among the shades of the neighborhood, within the confines of her class.
For Elena the neighborhood is increasingly inhabited by the phantoms of her youth, “the ghosts of [her] girlhood,” with the tunnel opening a door into a past world. To proceed, Elena must reckon with this past. In the final novel, she returns to live in the neighborhood in order to draw on it for inspiration, making it subject matter for her writing: “What before was dragging me down was now the material for climbing higher.” Elena imagines that by claiming authorial control over her past she can surpass it and use it as a springboard into greater success.
For Aeneas too the underworld presents an opportunity to transcend his history: Troy, his father, and Dido. The Aeneas that emerges is in some ways a man reborn, shed in particular of the Greek epic past, his Odyssean wanderings and Achillean wrath. To quote R.D. Williams, “Here in Book 6 …he takes his final leave of the Trojan and Homeric past and turns towards the Roman future.” This Aeneas is ready to found an empire.
The epic’s second half, however, reveals a more complex story. The final image is of Aeneas in full Achillean rage, reclaiming the fury he reluctantly gave up as Troy fell. His story ends with him embodying the Greek literary past, which itself may be lurking behind Elena’s surname of “Greco.” The past will never stop exerting itself on the stories of Elena and Aeneas. It haunts them, especially the ghosts of Lila and Dido, whom they can never fully abandon.
The strongest thematic contact between the Aeneid and the Neapolitan Novels is abandonment. Aeneas’s most significant act to Lila and Elena is his desertion of Dido for another. Mutual romantic devotion is likewise excluded from Ferrante’s novels: Elena leaves Antonio; Lila leaves Stefano; Nino leaves Lila; Elena leaves Pietro; Elena leaves Nino.
These are not ultimately the desertions that give Ferrante’s story emotional weight. The more poignant moments come when women — mothers, daughters, friends — abandon each other, and these grow ever more grueling as we proceed. The permanent estrangement between Lila and Elena unfolds slowly as a long series of fissures places increasingly greater distance between them. As the years pass, Elena simply knows less and less about Lila.
Lila’s reading of the Aeneid explicitly invites comparison of herself and Dido. She, like Dido, holds enormous promise, and Elena assigns her an almost mythical presence. Like Dido’s Carthage, the neighborhood prospers under Lila’s care — every enterprise in which she involves herself flourishes, from Stefano’s grocery to her computer business with Enzo. But Lila’s promise, also like Dido’s, is stifled until she becomes a figure of tragic loss. Whereas Dido’s tragedy springs from erotic abandonment, Lila’s comes when Tina, her beloved four-year-old daughter, simply disappears.
This loss produces indescribable grief in Lila. Her mind becomes an “inferno,” and she transforms into a wraith haunting the streets of the neighborhood. Lila’s grief turns the neighborhood into Fields of Mourning, the realm of the underworld Dido inhabits in Aeneid 6. When Elena unforgivably uses Tina’s disappearance as literary subject matter, Lila herself vanishes.
Elena’s only recourse after Lila’s disappearance is to write the story of her friend in an attempt to un-silence her. When one reaches the final page, it is clear that Elena will never stop narrating Lila, fleshing out someone she likens to a disembodied voice or an empty sleeve. Lila’s silence, which parallels Ferrante’s own desire to be unknown, constitutes a refusal to be living material subject to another’s authorial control. It is her way of taking over her own narration.
Dido similarly refuses to be subjected to the narrative control of others. After being used so terribly by fate, the gods, even Vergil, Dido chooses suicide in order to regain agency over herself — her death is nec fato (“unfated,” 4.696) and ante diem (“premature,” 4.697). The silent disregard she directs towards Aeneas in the underworld makes her inscrutable, not subject to clear narration. Her silence puts her beyond even Vergil’s reckoning.
Whose imitation of the Aeneid is this? Most obviously it is Ferrante’s, who has disclosed her prodigious reworking of earlier literature. But within the novels Lila first makes this contact with the Aeneid, whereupon Elena as narrator expands it and maps it onto their lives. After being praised for her high school paper on Dido, Elena asks herself, “That idea of the city without love … hadn’t it come to me from Lila, even if I had developed it, with my own ability?”
Elena similarly takes up Lila’s narrative cue when she reworks as her first novel Lila’s own childhood story, The Blue Fairy. Its plot is not described, but the title alludes to the magical fairy of Pinocchio, a classic Pygmalion-themed story about art’s power to invent identity. This is a formative story for Elena, who incorporates this theme into her writing and makes self-fashioning a central feature of her life. Elena in fact finds it so impossible to create without Lila’s influence that she sees herself as Lila’s invention. Elena’s panic over Lila’s disappearance is that of an artist deprived of inspiration.
What would this story look like as told by Lila? Certainly nothing like the Aeneid with its forward momentum toward a defined goal. To Lila life is incompatible with narratives that move along a linear path. For her, the boundaries of people, time, and place are subject to unpredictable dissolution, a phenomenon she calls “dissolving boundaries.” “Everything moves,” she says. Whereas Elena constructs a narrative of progress for herself, Lila’s recreations are Protean: “Lila the shoemaker, Lila who imitated Kennedy’s wife, Lila the artist and designer, Lila the worker, Lila the programmer, Lila always in the same place and always out of place.”
After Tina’s disappearance Lila becomes obsessed with the origins of Naples:
In the Neapolitan facts as she recounted them there was always something terrible, disorderly, at the origin, which later took the form of a beautiful building, a street, a monument, only to be forgotten, to lose meaning, to decline, improve, decline, according to an ebb and flow that was by its nature unpredictable.
In her focus on origins, change, and dissolution, Lila is Ovidian. Lila’s narrative tendencies are so different from Elena’s that, when she rereads her long narrative to see if Lila has tampered with it, she confesses that “these pages are mine alone” and “Lila is not in these words.”
Elena’s stated purpose in writing is to give Lila “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve,” i.e. to impose authorial control on her friend. But Lila keeps a final narrative trick up her sleeve that affixes an unresolved, open ending to Elena’s grand text. She sends her a package containing their childhood dolls, the story of whose loss opened the first book. The end of Elena’s story thus merges with the beginning, and the tale of their friendship now plays on a repeating loop that undermines its linear structure. Lila effectively dissolves the boundaries of Elena’s text.
Dido too upends the forward momentum of the Aeneid by reverberating across its second half. Allecto infuriates Turnus and Amata, replaying Cupid’s shooting of Dido; Camilla is dressed as a new Dido; Turnus is like a wounded Carthaginian lion, recalling Dido’s erotic wound; Pallas’s corpse is wrapped in a tunic woven by Dido. Vergil cannot desert her, and the narrative loops us constantly back to her. Turnus’s death reiterates, like Camilla’s before him, Dido’s demise, and we follow him in the last line sub umbras, “to the shades below,” where Dido resides. This famously ambiguous ending refuses the closure Vergil’s linear narrative invites us to expect.
The Aeneid and the Neapolitan novels question whether anyone can forge a new identity that transcends one’s birth, origins, or past. Art instead captures the process of becoming, how we fold our past selves into our present moment, and how this repeats across a lifetime. Both works have an open ending because life affords no moments of illuminating closure, no promise of authorial control. Having come so far, Elena and Aeneas end up largely where they began, though no less transformed because of this.
Stephanie McCarter is an Associate Professor of Classics at Sewanee: The University of the South. She is the author of Horace between Freedom and Slavery: The First Book of Epistles (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015) and has an article forthcoming in Classical Philology on humor in Vergil’s Georgics.
Bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud recommended the Neapolitan Quartet as post-election reading for Hillary Clinton on the BB4 radio show The World Tonight (starts at 40:45).
“I felt betrayed. Not because she was no longer anonymous; I had never cared about that. But because she is not Elena.”
The day before an earthquake I spent five delirious hours in the Naples airport. I spent ten minutes outside smoking a cigarette. I thought: This place is pale yellow and has unusual palm trees. It had tropicality with European gravity. There was a blue-lavender volcano that I could not see.
TheNew York Times
Harlan County, U.S.A.
TheNew York Review of Books,
Saturday Night Fever
The Story of a New Name.
My Brilliant Friend
The Blue Fairy
The Story of the Lost Child,
News From Home
Those Who Leave and Those Who StayTheNew York Times
Katherine Faw is from North Carolina. Her debut novel, Young God, was long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and named a best book of the year by The Times Literary Supplement, The Houston Chronicle, BuzzFeed, and more. Ultraluminous, a novel, is forthcoming in 2017. She lives in Brooklyn.
“A Strangeness in My Mind”: The 2016 Man Booker International Prize Finalists
(…) Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is the only one of the finalists for the Man Booker International Prize that has been widely reviewed in the United States and broadly marketed. The fourth book in her Neapolitan tetralogy, it concludes the story of the friendship between two women who grew up together in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Elena and Lila, whose lives take very different courses as adults. Unlike the other novels in this review, Ferrante’s tetralogy is a grand realistic project, which reviewers have compared to Balzac, to Tolstoy, to Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It follows the lives of a closely connected set of Neapolitan families from a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Naples over a span of about six decades, from the post-World War II period to the present day. (Each novel contains an index of characters in front, with all their relationships described.) The center of the novels is the relationship between Elena and Lila, who meet in first grade and quickly become best friends. The first volume in the tetralogy is called My Brilliant Friend; since Elena is the narrator and fictional author of the books, the title seems to refer to Lila but indeed describes them both in their relationship to each other. Both women of extraordinary intelligence and imagination with a drive to escape the confines of their traditional world and the ways in which it defines women’s lives take different paths. Elena, always a dutiful student, goes to university, escapes Naples, becomes a writer and feminist; Lila, more brilliant and temperamental, leaves school, marries an abusive husband, creates a number of local businesses by using the entrée her male friends and relatives afford, but never realizes her creative gifts. The title of the third volume of the tetralogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, identifies this dynamic; the novels ask us to contemplate what leaving and staying mean for the two heroines, whether Elena can ever really leave, and how crippling Lila’s staying becomes. The two women seem almost halves of a single self, alternate lives in a complexly gender-stratified world. The friends love each other, and they are intensely jealous of one another, Elena creating her fiction out of the life she has abandoned but cannot leave.
All four of the volumes of the tetralogy are deeply satisfying, but the last is perhaps the best in bringing together all the strands of the complex world Ferrante creates. My Brilliant Friend begins with a prologue that motivates the telling of the story; Lila disappears, and Elena seeks to bring her back by telling their story. The Story of the Lost Child brings us to that disappearance and the rupture in the friendship it represents. There is indeed a terrible loss of a child at the heart of the novel, but the lost child refers to much else—the lost dolls that Elena and Lila believe the local Mafia chief has stolen from them as children, the biological children from whom they feel estranged, and, most intensely, the childhood selves from which they’ve both departed. The tetralogy vividly depicts the texture of women’s lives: the dailiness of taking care—of children, houses, men—the physicality of menstrua- tion, sex, and pregnancy, the drive of aspiration and inspiration, the weight and web of social constraints. Earlier I quoted Eliot’s Middlemarch; in some sense, Ferrante is redoing Eliot’s project. Eliot begins her novel by comparing her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to Saint Theresa: “Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.” Lila, in some sense, is a modern day Theresa who fails to find an epic life, just as Elena, in some sense, is Mary Ann Evans; not the least brilliant of these novels’ many achievement is Ferrante’s exploration of the writer’s implication in her fictional project.
This is the first year that the Man Booker International Prize has been given not to a writer in recognition of his or her entire career but to an individual novel. The benefit of such a change is the attention it brings to extraordinary novels not familiar to many English-speaking readers.