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.
Read it now:
Our critics chose 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.
By Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai
March 5, 2018
In 2016, the feminist press Emily Books held a panel in Brooklyn titled, a bit cheekily, “What Is Women’s Writing?” There was no consensus, much laughter and a warm, rowdy vibe. Eileen Myles read from a memoir in progress and Ariana Reines read a poem, wearing a dress with a pattern of a city on fire. All of this felt exactly right.
But even if it puts your teeth on edge to see “women’s writing” cordoned off in quotes, you can’t deny the particular power of today’s women writers — their intensity of style and innovation. The books steering literature in new directions — to new forms, new concerns — almost invariably have a woman at the helm, an Elena Ferrante, a Rachel Cusk, a Zadie Smith.
For Women’s History Month, The Times’s staff book critics — Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai and myself, Parul Sehgal — sat down together to think about these writers who are opening new realms to us, whose books suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.
As we put together a reading list, we introduced a few parameters, for sanity’s sake. We consigned ourselves to books written by women and published in the 21st century. And we limited our focus to fiction, but not without some grief. Memoir has emerged as a potent political and literary force in recent years (see the terrain-shifting work of Maggie Nelson, for example). And poets like Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif and Tracy K. Smith are some of the most distinctive voices working today.
The books we selected are a diverse bunch. They are graphic novels, literary fiction and works inflected with horror and fantasy. They hail from Italy, Canada, Nigeria and South Korea. They are wildly experimental and staunchly realist.
Any list, especially one as idiosyncratic as ours, is bound to leave off some worthy contenders, like “Wolf Hall,” say, or “Gilead” or “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (to name just a few). This is not a comprehensive list, far from it. We hope it will be seen as a start — a way to single out these extraordinary books and the ability of fiction to challenge and reimagine the world. Some of the books we selected, like “Americanah,” bring a fresh slant to the novel’s natural concerns about character and fate and belonging. Others, like “How Should a Person Be?,” pluck new questions out of the air, in this instance about authorship and authenticity. They ransack classic stories (“American Innovations”) and invent genres out of whole cloth (“Her Body and Other Parties”).
Every one of these books features a woman at the center. She is brainy (Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy), grimy (“Homesick for Another World”), terrorized (“The Vegetarian”) and all of the above (the new mother in “Dept. of Speculation”). Each book’s utterly distinct style emerges as its women try to invent a language for their lives.
You could say these books are on the vanguard, but to suggest just one vanguard feels so insufficient. What makes these books so rich is their plenitude, the variety they contain and embody. “My story flows in more than one direction,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. “A delta springing from the riverbed/with its five fingers spread.” — Parul Sehgal
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster novels, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, follow the entwined lives of two childhood friends with an intensity and psychological acuity that put contemporary fiction on notice. The books are also social novels of remarkable and subtle power, offering a history of postwar Italy and the terrorism of the Camorra. But everything comes filtered through the personal lives of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, ordinary women who would never make it into the history books. Lila and Elena grew up in the slums of Naples, in a clinch so ardent and dangerous that to call it friendship feels hideously inadequate. The series carries us through 50 years, as the women rescue and betray each other, struggle to escape the slums and their mothers, and become mothers themselves. Ferrante captures the barely contained violence of domestic life and is taboo-shattering in her unsparing and relentless exploration of the secret lives of women — their ambivalence and shame. Like Lena, these books give off “an odor of wildness.” Their intelligence cuts into the skin. — Parul Sehgal
Many love you because you’re unavailable. Despite international acclaim, you have firmly chosen to remain out of the public eye, concealing your true identity and writing under a pseudonym. You choose this in part because, as you’ve said, “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” How can we not be intrigued and seduced by you?
Your Neapolitan novels focus on the lives of two girls, Lenu, our narrator, and her brilliant friend, Lila. Both grow up poor in Naples, Italy during the aftermath of WWII. The books follow the pair’s divergent paths to adulthood; one becomes upwardly mobile through education and the other struggles for autonomy and a better life in their poor neighborhood. The book is just as much about the shifting political, economic, and cultural forces at play in Italy during this period. These potentially intimidating themes are brought back to earth by delivering them through the lives and experiences of the two extraordinary characters and their evolving relationship.
Your work is enormous in its scope and deeply layered, while still managing to be relatable. The Neapolitan Novels are about the nuances of friendship and intimacy between women as much as they’re about the epic struggle for autonomy and agency in a deeply unequal and shifting society. You have written a book that is unsentimental yet has a great, bursting heart, a series that explores the light and dark of friendship and the machinations of power. You capture the intense interior experiences of living in a society that works to confine you, and you also beautifully articulate the divine rage and rebellion which seethes within those subject to these oppressive experiences. You have written a ‘serious’ piece of literature with cover art that is unapologetically feminine.
Elena Ferrante, I love you because your work is transcendent. You defy definition and you irreverently rebel against attempts to categorize your writing. You gave me a new understanding of what art can be.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
There’s a good chance you’ve already received recommendations for Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet from gushy friends, fervent booksellers and rhapsodic librarians. So no more excuses: Read it now, because chances are, you’ll love every soapy Italian moment. Plus, Ferrante is handling the screenplay for HBO’s forthcoming adaptation, so your Neapolitan infatuation may continue indefinitely.
Elena Ferrante – The Neapolitan Novels
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, not a real name. And that mystery brings up a lot of emotional discussions about the real person behind it and the nature of the books. Some think it’s an autobiography, some even argue that the writer is male, which I find hard to believe having read her books. But everybody agrees that once you start reading her Neapolitan Novels, it’s impossible to break away.
The beginning of the first book disappointed me as it is written in kind of a crude childish manner. The story is set in a poor and run-down neighbourhood of Naples, full of violence. Two friends, the schoolgirls Elena Greko and Lila Cerullo, dream, read books and plan their way out of this little and limited community, they were born into.
The protagonist, Elena Greko, annoyed me all the way to the middle of the first book. She didn’t have any self-esteem, didn’t defend her personal borders, her best friend Lila manipulated her every way possible. But the style of storytelling changed as the heroines grew up and their view of the world developed. The deep voice and the great narration of Hilary Huber, reading the text of English translation of the novel, also dragged me in.
Only much later, when I read about the earthquake in Naples I realised why so many things in this book attracted me and pushed me away the same time. I saw the scenes of the earthquake for real – the crowds of people, the destruction, the overall life put to halt for a long time – I saw it all in Armenia when I was a little child. This whole environment in the book reminded me the small town in Armenia where I spent the first years of my childhood. I was lucky in a way. Having been born to an academic family, I didn’t have to fight for the right to get an education as Elena did. But a lot of the attributes of the environment seemed familiar either from my own memories or from stories told by my parents and relatives.
So the days passed, and I couldn’t get myself away from the audiobooks, listening every moment in the car, every second when my little one was asleep or played on his own on the playground. 4 books, almost 70 hours of audio, I fully immersed in the world of Elena and I realised, why it attracted so many readers. It shows naked feelings, feelings that hurt deeply and keep alive. The heroine has an amazing understanding of those feelings, her own and other people’s. She doubts herself all the time, but at the same time, she is brave enough to write about corruption and crime without having a second thought about the criminals who can recognise themselves in her writing. I am sure, this book could be an excellent subject for a dissertation on shame and vulnerability if Brene Brown got to it. But I am also sure that it’s a book that you couldn’t stay indifferent to. You either love it or hate it.
It’s been all the rage at book clubs everywhere.
We read the smash hit Italian novel from Elena Ferrante.
Julia is effusive. Tod is stoked. Rider is…argumentative.
Typical times at the Disco.
By Valerie Waterhouse
Published on October 5, 2017
Recent authors have made Pirandello’s themes so central that the search for, or absence of, identity have become a defining characteristic of ‘Italian-ness’. Famously, Elena Ferrante has annulled her own authorial identity: ‘Ferrante’ is a cypher for an anonymous writer – possibly a translator, possibly married to novelist Domenico Starnone, possibly a stand-in for both halves of the couple – or perhaps we are all on the wrong track? The absence of a public presence frees Ferrante from ‘the rituals that writers are more or less obliged to perform in order to sustain their book,’ she explained to Vanity Fair.
In an article for The Guardian, Ferrante wrote about Jane Austen, who also published her novels anonymously. ‘Who wrote Sense and Sensibility? Who invented Marianne and Elinor and their mother and the many female characters who appear, disappear, reappear?’ she asked. She might well have been commenting on her own best-selling novels: The Neapolitan Quartet. Their focus is the six-decade-long friendship between Elena/Lenuccia/Lenù and Raffaella/Lina/Lila, whose changing names and the similarities between their nomenclatures (Lenù/Lina) underline the impossibility of pinning down identity across time and space. My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, begins with Lina/Lila’s disappearance: ‘She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life she had left behind. Everything, including her computer, photos of herself, birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts, had gone.’ Characters stretch their boundaries so far across the course of the novels, that they are almost impossible to define. The most extreme example is the women’s friend, Alfonso, who undergoes a male to female transition so complete that he almost transforms into Lina. And yet, like Italian identity, each personality displays seemingly immutable defining traits. Elena is hard-working and studious and efficient; Lina’s razor-sharp intelligence never fades.
(…. ) The desire to uncover our one true voice, the dread of hearing what it has to say: This seems to me the tension of modern life, the thing that has us searching for a cell signal on yoga retreat. Being in a place where nothing has an agenda for your attention, as Axelrod found, means looking and listening in an unguarded way. “Natural curiosities and affinities emerge,” as he puts it, “becoming the filters for experience.” How we breathe in the world, then, defaults to a function of an unbidden part of identity, rather than a function of what others want us to be — or, perhaps even more crucially, how we want others to think we are.
Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose pseudonymity became part of her mystique, once wrote to me in an email interview, “If my book were publicly mine from the beginning, I would be careful not to damage my image, I would censor myself.” Writing was a “battle against lying. Only with the confidence of anonymity can I decide occasionally to publish. In the end, if I’m forced to choose, I prefer to lose the role of writer rather than spoil my passion for writing — that’s the way it’s always been.” When she was allegedly unmasked by an Italian investigative journalist, her fans were outraged at the violation. It was invasive, they argued, which it was, but it seemed to me that not only were they defending Ferrante from the indignity of having her financial and real-estate records unveiled, they were also defending their own right not to know, to be free to imagine that she was, in fact, Elena Greco, the narrator of her Neapolitan Novels, the woman they knew with the intimacy and deep interiority only possible in literature.
And so contemporary artists find ways to battle for truth on their own terms. I think of young women like Emma Cline, who push back against having their photos on the dust jackets of their books, or David Hammons, who declines to participate in the accepted machinations of the art world, or Bob Dylan, who took nearly two weeks to even publicly acknowledge that he won the Nobel Prize in literature last year. But maybe the best display of resistance against the role of artist-as-performer was the quietly myth-demolishing article by this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote for The Guardian about the four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the “crash,” a desperate attempt to “reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.” The result was “The Remains of the Day,” a monumental yesteryear portrait of renunciation, and a life passed by, tragically unlived. Now, of course, all is reversed: It’s renouncing the world that requires nerve and imagination, and the roar of silence that dares us to listen.
Anna-Sofia Lesiv, Columnist
When Lena imagines herself in her mind, her actual appearance is not what she pictures. Lena is chubby. Glasses cover her eyes, acne covers her skin. She’s coming of age in a poor and violent suburb of Naples, being hurled towards adulthood, while grasping – as if for a branch in a hurricane – for childhood and a world where time stays still. Adulthood is frightening. It disables like her mother’s limp. It suffocates with the claustrophobia of domesticity and aches with the disappointment of abandoned dreams. Growing up seems, for Lena, what it is for most girls, a winding on of constraints and obligations, an application of social pressure and a submission to its conformity.
Adolescence is the jarring in-between. It’s the time before the substance of our identities hardens into the adults we fear becoming. A present yet fleeting moment of tumult, it offers a final window of hope to shape our lives, our minds, before they ossify into their mature and unchangeable forms.
“My Brilliant Friend” is a journey through the secret thoughts, memories and confessions swirling in Lena’s mind. Paced by the ever-increasing speed of change, the novel exudes uncertainty. At nearly every point in the narrative, Lena is struggling to define her self-worth – and herself. Though she is sought after by boys and praised by teachers, she questions her beauty, her intelligence and her merits. Though she is deeply introspective and thoughtful, she fears being wrong or seeming stupid. Lena’s challenge is Sisyphean, to overcome within herself that which always tells her she is behind. Author Elena Ferrante pours out these insecurities with prose you could drink, but digesting the plight of the young protagonist would be exhausting if it weren’t so acutely familiar.
As a freshman last year, I remember sitting in class with the previous night’s reading whirling in my mind. I had argued over the ideas with my friends last night, ruminated over their meaning. Yet when prompted for questions or comments, my hand stayed resolutely lowered, my mouth steadfastly closed. My piece, which teetered at the tip of my tongue, was knocked off balance by the frenzy of thoughts chasing each other in circles, each one critical of the last. While a hurricane ravaged through my mind, the professor calmly registered the silence and moved on.
Later on, I approached a friend of mine to ask about this phenomenon that followed me from class to class. It felt as if something inside of me were ordering me to stay silent, lest I be wrong, lest my question contain the slightest redundancy. No matter how much I dedicate myself to the material, self-doubt always seemed to creep in. To my surprise, my friend told me that she was experiencing the exact same thing. We resolved that introspecting, overanalyzing, somehow always made us weaker. It set one part of ourselves against another, and left us in a haze, not knowing which “self” to trust.
Like young Lena, we lacked – and perhaps feared – the conviction required to assert our opinions, and thus ourselves. Fearing that we become, inadvertently, what we did not wish to be. Fearing that a false statement might crystallize into a false impression. In general, we just feared.
The world offers a lot for a girl to fear. The threat of violence, abuse, loss of agency or denial of self-fulfillment, all are ominous concerns thumping in the background of “My Brilliant Friend,” and while it’s easy to learn to fear, girls, in particular are much more hard pressed to find models of overcoming it without submitting to artificially mimicking the trope of male supremacy.
On this point, Ferrante offers a brilliant case study. Lila, Lena’s self-assured and powerful friend, doesn’t fear wielding a knife on those who cross her. She dominates with her intellect, and eviscerates all doubt directed at her through forceful outbursts of aggression and merciless cruelty. However, Lila’s extreme displays of courage seem to hint that beneath them lay profound unrest. Midway into her adolescence, she begins experiencing a feeling she calls “dissolving boundaries,” when all around her, people, objects lose their shape and seem but a mass of particles, spilling out of their original forms. The storm of adolescence ravages, leaving nothing behind as it was. Lila’s ambition devolves into doubt, and her courage eventually gives in to fear. She commits herself to provincial life and dismisses the prospect of moving away from her impoverished, lethargic town.
Suppressing self-doubt does not get rid of it, and the contrast between the two friends finally exposes itself in the way the girls respond to self-critique. Whereas Lena grew up and adapted under the constant pressure of crushing self-doubt, for Lila, the shock of finally admitting to such uncertainty, was irreparably destructive.
After reading the first novel in Ferrante’s series, I met with my friend from freshman year once again. She had been reading an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published a few days prior that seemed to translate exactly what we felt into a polished jargon, as if our recurring dispositions were legitimate academic methodology. The entry is titled “Epistemic Self-Doubt,” and dubs the state of the split, doubting self, as one of “epistemic akrasia.”
The entry sheds light on what it means to be a constantly self-critiquing and doubting being. It notes that while splitting oneself into two factions is not the most straightforward means of existence, it’s almost not a state of perpetual moral tempest, and by all means, is extremely possible to simply live with. Lena’s not a role model – no one in Ferrante’s books is. She never solves the problem of self-doubt, but she does move forward despite it. Her ability to keep going despite her flaws is her most commendable trait, one that fellow epistemic akrasiacs are wont to take note of.
Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.