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. 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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You have to love a novel that starts with the disappearance of one of its protagonists. When Elena discovers that Lila, her childhood friend, has not only disappeared, but also removed all physical traces of her existence, she gets angry. She resolves to write a novel in which she will record all she has found out about Lila over the past sixty years. Story-telling as a corrective, an act of vengeance.
Having thus framed the novel in the prologue, Ferrante takes the reader back to 1950s Naples, a gritty and at times violent urban environment, where being male is a distinct advantage, and being streetwise a necessity. Enter the unlikely protagonists: two six-year-old girls.
Lila Cerullo is one of those fictional characters who stay with you long after you have closed the magnetic flap over your iPad. She is intelligent but taciturn, determined, self-assured and brave. Elena Greco, the narrator, matches her intelligence, but it is Lila who is the natural leader, always taking the initiative.
Ferrante conjures up tension and suspense from mundane events: a test in class, a teacher falling against a desk, women quarrelling in the street, two girls skipping class. From the opening scene she displays her story-telling skills. The terror is palpable as the girls creep up the stairs to the apartment of Don Achille, a shadowy character who is disliked and feared in equal measure. Elena imagines him as ‘a huge man, covered with purple boils. (…) A being created out of (…) iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth.’
Education is of crucial importance in Ferrante’s world: it imparts benefits to cognitive and social development. It provides a gateway to self-determination. It offers an opportunity to escape fate and a destiny mired in family feuds or the internecine politics of postwar Italy – what the girls call ‘what came before.’ When Lila is made to work in her parents’ shoe shop while Elena is allowed to continue her studies, it seems as if Elena may outgrow her friend. But Lila doggedly, furtively, shadows Elena by studying Greek before trundling off to work, using textbooks borrowed from the local library. Her persistence goes beyond friends being competitive – this is educational stalking.
The novel tracks the ebb and flow of this special friendship until the girls are in their late teens. Lila’s persona, headstrong and contrarian, means that the novel never veers into sentimentality. This is a story about girls growing up and struggling for self-determination. They use their intelligence, initiative and native wit to counter the influence of family and community expectations and peer group pressure. The girls’ alliance is shaky at times, and not everyone comes out a winner… It is refreshing, though, to read a coming-of-age novel where learning is embraced by the protagonists and plays such a liberating role.
At times the grotesque threats as perceived by the girls reminded me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. At other moments the novel reminded me of how Emile Zola used his Rougon-Macquart series as a sociological laboratory, a tool for tracing the impact of the environment on his characters. But these echoes are superficial, and Ferrante’s book is in no way derivative. She has found her own voice and conveys her message with confidence, wit and humour. I am not the first to say this is a great novel, and I won’t be the last.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels read like memoir, so why are they not shelved that way? Shouldn’t four books, emotionally and factually detailing the life of a woman in a first-person voice, with an author whose given name is the narrator’s, be considered memoir? The form of the books directly compare with Karl Ove Knaussgard’s six-tome memoir My Struggle or Simone de Beauvoir’s four chronological autobiographies. But Ferrante says she is writing under a pseudonym and has not revealed her true identity. Should we believe her?
Ferrante’s novels follow the lives of Elena (Lenù), her best friend Lila and the people with whom they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. There is (of course) speculation that Ferrante is a man, but I’ve never known a man or writer so passionate about female friendship, the bones and meat and soul of the story. Lila and Lenù are competitive, jealous, resentful, spiteful and obsessed with each other, or in other words, best friends. Lila is a brilliant but troubled woman who Lenù cannot help but love for their formative memories and their intertwined emotional lives. In a way, Ferrante’s novels follow the narrative style whose most common reference is The Great Gatsby, wherein the narrator is more of a neutral observer of the much more interesting, evasive and irresistible main character. Maybe Ferrante doesn’t care to share herself with her readers because then we would want to find Lila too. Or maybe she is Lila. In any case, I find it hard to believe that whoever Ferrante really is, this all did not happen.
Maybe that is the mark of a good novel: the reader continues to suspend their disbelief even once the reading is done. I generally shy from books that preface with family trees. If the narrative is so complex that I need a reference document, I highly doubt I will lose myself to this world. That is not the case for this series; the world is there, all the characters heaped in and held together by this poor neighbourhood in Naples no one can truly escape. The Story of a New Name, the second book in Ferrante’s series, chronicles the teenage and early adult years of Lenù and Lila and all their friends. People follow or veer away from well-planned paths, and though the writer doesn’t develop characters like Ada and Gigliola enough that I could draw them for you or pick their voices out of a crowd, I can tell you the role they play in Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, which is all that matters.
What is maybe most remarkable to me about these books—what differentiates them the most from other books I’ve read—is the careful balance between divulging and holding back. Elena is not afraid to tell us that she is in love with Lila, or close enough to it, or to take each emotion and analyze it right down to its component pieces. But even then, the language never loses its consistent, delicate distance. This is something I’ve found before when reading a translated work. Maybe it is in the translator’s attention and care to each word, or in the flow that is lost or maintained from the original language. Or perhaps it’s in the translation from a culture whose emotional life I cannot so quickly access. We don’t just learn about Italy through this book, we learn the story of Italian women, of poverty in Italy in the 40s and 50s, and we learn maybe even more: the life of one Italian woman, whether living or not, still very real to me. It’s also only now, reading these works, that I realize how lacking my bookshelf is of Italian literature, and, in particular, Italian female writers. If this book has anything to say to this point, it’s that it isn’t because of a lack of brilliance or determination in Italian women.
Book Reviews by Seán Sheehan
This is the first of the four Neapolitan novels by the mysterious Elena Ferrante – a tiny handful of people know who she is (assuming the author is a woman) and their lips are sealed – and introduces the friendship between the bookish and brilliant Elena and the fiery iconoclast Lila. The first book is set in post-World War Two Naples, where Elena and Lila are childhood buddies, and it’s a story of camaraderie and conflict.
By the end of reading My Brilliant Friend you are likely to be hooked and proceed immediately to The Story of a New Name, then Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and, finally, The Story of the Lost Child. The novels carry you along as Elena, the narrator, and Lila grow up into a world of politics, marriage and family but this is a million miles away from chick-lit.
It is difficult to pin down the way in which the reader, female or male, is drawn into the lives of these two women but I suspect it has something to do with all of us not just knowing a Lila and Elena but having or wanting to have a part of them in our own makeup.
A writing technique that beginner writers hear a lot about is “show, don’t tell”.
“Show, don’t tell” can be handy advice for a beginner writer who reports rather than reveals, who races past important plot points, or recounts backstory instead of describing how characters interact, or what they look like, or how they fare under pressure.
It can be a useful suggestion for any writer at any stage who, in their rush to get to the end of a draft, may have privileged plot over character development, or glossed over those parts of the story that really matter: those that speak to the central themes or are key to the overall narrative arc.
The problem with “show, don’t tell” is that word “don’t” in the middle.
However, show too much and your story will be static, like a beautiful painting – not a story at all. Sunil Badami wrote about this problem in a blog post for Southerly, saying: ‘Too often, misreading the idea of “show, don’t tell”, writers show us everything in the room but tell us nothing about what’s happening in their characters’ hearts. Much less anything at all: stuck looking around the room, nothing else much happens.’
The problem with “show, don’t tell” is that word “don’t” in the middle. It pits “showing” and “telling” against each other as separate and opposite, when in fact they are – or can be, as they are in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels – integrated to the point where they are near-impossible to parse.
Earlier this year I went to Bali. Having already devoured My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels, I began reading the next book, The Story of a New Name, on the plane to Denpasar. That night in my Airbnb villa on the outskirts of Ubud I read until late, while outside in the garden, frogs barked. For a few hours I could hear the tinkle of gamelan and the pop of fireworks in the distance; the sounds of celebration. By midnight the party had ended; scooters stuttered on until dawn and then stopped. It was Nyepi, Balinese New Year, traditionally a day of silence and meditation. Everything was closed and everyone – including tourists – had to stay at home. I bunkered down in my villa and read and read and read.
In the four years leading up to this holiday, I had been reading memoir and creative non-fiction almost exclusively, with the explicit intent of teaching myself how to write non-fiction. I read novels rarely, and always with the expectation of experiencing, for a time, that all-encompassing joy of living in a world of another’s making. If I caught myself analysing or picking holes, I stopped. If the language distracted from, rather than fed, the central narrative, I stopped. If I felt manipulated by the plot and pacing, I stopped.
Reading Ferrante, I did not want to stop. I was not distracted. I did not feel manipulated. I was in thrall to her storytelling powers, as so many readers, and writers and critics have been. “I read these books in a state of immersion,” wrote Jhumpa Lahiri. “I am propelled by a ravenous will to keep going,” wrote Molly Fischer in The New Yorker.
In my memory the bliss of reading, of being immersed in the story of Lenú and Lila, is so tightly threaded through all the other experiences of that holiday – the seafood dinners on the sand, the massages, the marathon afternoons in the pool with friends, talking nonsense while we drank Bintang – I cannot prise them apart. Nor would I want to.
There is a part of me that doesn’t want to understand what it is about these books that makes them special. But I have been reading as a writer for so long now that even as Naples’ violence pulsed through my veins and Ischia’s sun burned hot on my skin – as I, too, fell in and out of love with Nino – I was taking notes, filing them away. Always, at the back of my mind, I was wondering: what could Ferrante teach me?
In a 2015 email interview with Jennifer Levasseur for The Sydney Morning Herald(SMH), Ferrante wrote: ‘Whatever story, whatever genre it belongs to, it must develop techniques that make it appear credible not only to those who read, but also to those who write.’ I am intrigued by the idea that a story develops its own techniques, and by the inference: that these techniques might then differ from story to story.
Throughout the Neapolitan Novels, scenes are not set in the traditional sense, or set apart, even, from the surrounding tumult of Lenú’s narration. Her drive to understand her friendship with Lila, her ambition, her obsession with Nino, her relationship with Naples and the neighbourhood, is ever-present. Even as she is remembering and attempting to describe events as they happened, she is reflecting and interpreting her feelings and thoughts, and her own and others’ behaviour.
There is a part of me that doesn’t want to understand what it is about these books that makes them special.
Because of this, Lenú tells as much as – and perhaps more than – she shows. The day after losing her virginity to Donato Sarratore, Lenú remembers: ‘[I] woke up cheerful’ and ‘even when Nino, Lila, and what had happened at the Maronti came back to me, in fragments, I still felt good.’ She interprets rather than describes others’ thoughts and feelings, especially Lila’s: ‘She discovered that wealth no longer seemed a prize and a compensation, it no longer spoke to her … The relationship between money and the possession of things had disappointed her.’ All of this unfurls with the same sense of urgency. There is no ebb and flow, no shifts in gear.
In the same interview with the SMH, Ferrante wrote that Lenú’s ‘compulsion to narrate is a fundamental part of the story, almost its summation: she wants to pin Lila down once and for all, she wants to be tied to her definitively.’ It is this compulsion – Lenú’s urgent and pressing need to know and understand her lifelong friendship with Lila – which brings an absolute and undeniable credibility to the Neapolitan Novels’ narration and invokes in us a “willing suspension of disbelief”. And so Ferrante shows us, through Lenú’s narration, what the story is about.
‘I’m a storyteller,’ Ferrante wrote, in a 2014 Q & A with The New York Times. ‘I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing.’ Fortunately for us, as readers and as writers, she is a master of both.♦
Melissa Fagan is a writer and editor based in Brisbane. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, [untitled] and elsewhere. She recently completed an MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland.
Published September 20, 2016
The so-called Ferrante Fever reached my country some months ago with this book series titled “The Neapolitan novels”, and I decided to read it just because everybody was reading it. However, what I found was not the typical bestseller, meaning a thriller you are hooked on for a couple of days, but a slow story about a complex friendship between two girls, framed in a low-class Italian neighbourhood.
Lila is brilliant; a girl who can achieve whatever she desires to, resourceful, witty and with charisma. On the other hand Lenù, our narrator, is an introvert, hard-working and not so outstanding girl. She is very good at school and she gets to study further courses than the majority of her classmates but, somehow, Lila always seems to go ahead of her in every aspect of their lives, making Lenù fight an internal battle between trying to be better than Lila and feeling of guilt about her disloyalty to her friend.
The narration is set in the fifties in Naples, in a society in which everything seems to be like in the past. Girls are expected to find a suitable husband, the sooner the better, a task described as the finest art in the book; the richest families will always be superior and respected; the boys will always dominate their female friends and find any excuse to start a fight… But for our young protagonists there is also the hope that you can be something else through education, which is the only thing Lila and Lenù have in common: their willingness to learn and dream higher lives for themselves. However, they both are confined within the borders of this small place they live in, whose rules are hard to break.
It took me a long time to read the book; as I told you at the beginning, this is not a page-turner, but a slow narration that takes its time but does invite you to keep on reading. I enjoyed the dichotomy Lenù faces regarding this peculiar friendship; she depends on Lila in a way her friend does not, and that makes the relationship unbalanced and, therefore, the story interesting.
The only negative thing I have to point out is the abrupt ending – a chapter is over and the story doesn’t continue, hanging on in the middle of a scene, so to speak, for you to pick up the second volume I guess… Which I will soon do.
Are you also a victim of the #FerranteFever?
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels are putting Naples firmly on the map, says Susannah Butter
A mafia heartland in the shadow of a volcano might not immediately sound like an enticing holiday destination. But mysterious author Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym — her true identity remains a secret) has changed all that. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels are putting the biggest city in southern Italy firmly on the visitor map. Tours of Naples as featured in the books sell out fast, and enterprising stalls on the Gothic Via dei Tribunali now even serve Ferrante pizzas. A television series is also coming, made by the producers of Sky’s Naples-set crime drama Gomorrah, which is only set to increase its appeal.
For now, though, Naples is just busy enough — only 13 per cent of visitors to Italy make it here, mostly en route to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. That means you can explore the faded grandeur of its historic centre — a Unesco World Heritage site — without having to navigate hordes of other travellers. Down by the sea, there are plenty of hidden masterpieces within churches and monasteries, and shady squares serving spritzes. Up in the hills, reached by funicular railway, the note is more cool luxury, with imposing villas looking out over the Bay of Naples.
Where to stay
On the Riviera di Chiaia, the recently renovated Micalo (00 39 081 761 7131; micalo.it) is one of the city’s few modern design hotels, and a calm antidote to the hectic corniche outside. British expat owner Michelle Lowe has tastefully converted the top floors of a 17th-century palazzo, using natural materials wherever possible — limestone from Trani, wooden floorboards — and the predominant colour is a cooling white. Breakfast is local pastries and fresh fruit, and the hotel conveniently located for ferries to Capri and Ischia. Doubles from €130, B&B.
Where to eat and drink
You’re never more than a few blocks away from a proper pizza in Naples. The city claims to have invented the dish in 1889 and its signature Neapolitan style — emulated by the likes of London’s own Franco Manca and Pizza Pilgrims — keeps keen gourmands flocking in for a slice of the action.
In a crowded field, the unassuming-looking Di Matteo’s is well worth a visit (00 39 081 455 262; pizzeriadimatteo.com). Downstairs there’s a hatch selling hot arancini and pizza straight from the vast oven; upstairs you’ll find checked tablecloths and tattooed pizzaiolo. The classics come with impeccable dough and just the right fresh-tomato-to-cheese ratio, while there’s also pizza fritta — deep-fried calzone, crisped up at the edges with a salty, melted filling. Round it off with a €1 glass of prosecco from the nameless wine shop next door at number 91. Generous portions are poured into plastic cups that you can take away.
Southern Italy specialises in baked goods, and the sfogliatella at Scaturchio (00 39 081 551 7031; scaturchio.it) is a must: thin, flaky pastry layered into a shell shape, packed with sweet ricotta and candied fruit. It also does rum baba in the shape of Vesuvius.
For afternoon refuelling, stop off for ice cream at Gay Odin (800 200 030;), an old-fashioned, low-lit sweet shop. The classic chocolate is rich and satisfyingly bitter but the star flavour is a light ricotta and pear.
Young Neapolitans’ favourite place to unwind with an aperitif is bar-lined Piazza Bellini. Start with a €4 peach bellini or Aperol spritz at Il Taschino Café (72 Piazza Bellini), best enjoyed under a parasol by the ruins of the fourth-century Greek city walls. Then proceed around the square for dinner at Caffè Arabo (64 Piazza Bellini). Buttery courgette spaghetti and mustard greens with cheese goes especially well with a bottle of local Primitivo wine.
In upscale Vomero, go to Renzo e Lucio Lounge Bar (00 39 081 191 710 22; renzoelucianapoli.it). It’s more expensive than the bars in central Naples but worth the extra spend for its sea and skyline views.
Where to shop
In Ferrante’s novels, Lila runs a shoe shop in Chiaia, where she stares at “wealthy, elegant people”. Although her empire, Cerullo, is fictional, the boutiques of this well-heeled area are among the best in the city. Prefer a bargain? Avoid the hefty price tags of Chiaia’s busy Piazza dei Martiri and head to the soaring, glass-domed
19th-century arcade Galleria Umberto I (Via San Carlo; 00 39 081 795 1111), in nearby Quartieri Spagnoli, where the fashion is a little more frugal.
But the best buys in Naples are undoubtedly edible. Stock up on lemon pasta and limoncello made with
Sorrento lemons at Neapolitan institution Limonè (00 39 081 299 429; limoncellodinapoli.it). Friendly staff encourage you to try before you buy, and if you’re lucky they might offer torrone (nougat) as a parting gift.
What to see & do
The Museo di Capodimonte (00 39 081 749 9111;museocapodimonte.beniculturali.it) is worth a trip for the view over the Bay of Naples from its lush, well-manicured gardens alone. But its collection — from Titian to Andy Warhol’s colourful take on Vesuvius — is also impressive. The Flagellation by Caravaggio is here, too; the troubled painter fled to Naples after killing a pimp in Rome, and you can see another of his works, the Seven Acts of Mercy, in Pio Monte Della Misericordia (00 39 081 446 944;piomontedellamisericordia.it). For something a little less bloodthirsty, head for the watery mosaic covering Toledo metro station (Via Armando Diaz), while a retrospective of Neapolitan avant-garde photographer Mimmo Jodice runs until the end of October at Madre (00 39 081 193 130 16; madrenapoli.it/en).
By Allison Sadlier / Entertainment Weekly
Sept. 11, 2016
‘I could not stop reading it or thinking about it’
There’s nothing like becoming obsessed with a good book, a sensation Hillary Clinton knows very well according to the third episode of her podcast With Her, co-hosted by Max Linsky.
The Democratic presidential nominee chatted about what she does during her limited downtime on the campaign trail and said, “I need the time to collect myself, to catch up on my reading, my sleeping, my exercising all of which get pushed to the bottom of the pile if I don’t make time.”
The nominee notes she reads “the serious stuff I’m supposed to read,” but that “homework” hasn’t stopped her from finding scants of time to read for enjoyment. Clinton counts novels, spy thrillers, mysteries, and biographies among her favorite genres, but admits she’s currently “engulfed” in one series in particular.
“You know what I have started reading and it’s just hypnotic is the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante,” she tells Linsky, commenting on Ferrante’s intoxicating novels about female relationships in Naples, Italy that have an intense cult following. “I had to stop myself so I read the first one. I could not stop reading it or thinking about it.”
Now in an attempt to savor the series, Clinton explains that she’s “rationing” out the second novel to make the four-part series last a little longer – and not keep her from the campaign.
Listen to the full With Her podcast here.
Hillary Clinton says she loves to dip into a good book when she gets a break from the campaign trail — and her latest favorites are the Neapolitan Novels from Italian author Elena Ferrante.
On an episode of the “With Her” campaign podcast, released Thursday, Clinton called the series “hypnotic.”
Clinton also spoke about shaking off negativity and stressed how much she values her longtime friends, adding that she will have them stay at the White House if she’s elected.
Clinton said she relishes time with her friends. She said: “It’s so easy to get isolated when you are president. You can be surrounded by really incredibly professional supportive staff people, but you never know what you might pick up if you break out of that circle from time to time.”