Neapolitan Novels 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.
Read it now:
The Neapolitan Novels’: “My Brilliant Friend,’’ “The Story of a New Name,’’ “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,’’ “The Story of the Lost Child,” Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa)
You’ve heard everyone talk about them, this addictive epic about two girls in Naples and the pathways they take into life. The size has put you off, maybe the hype. Just start with volume 1, and say good-bye to the world around you.
BY JEFFREY BLUM
I have a confession to make: I am Elena Ferrante.
When, in My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante brutally exposed the class divisions in Neapolitan society, that was me. When she documented a tempestuous female friendship in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, that was me as well. When she declined interview requests from the world’s leading literary publications — also me. They were all me because they were all Elena Ferrante and I am Elena Ferrante.
Much of the speculation around my identity has started from the assumptions that I am female, middle-aged, Italian, from Naples, have lived in Pisa, and am a professor in some humanities-related field. Very few literary detectives have figured out that I am a male, 26-year-old American whose experience with Pisa is limited to viewing a picture of a friend holding up the Leaning Tower through a hilariously original manipulation of perspective, and whose work experience is limited to data entry, SAT tutoring, and multiple unpaid internships.
Over the past year, I’ve discussed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a lot of women in my life. These conversations often settled on similar topics: the twisted and complex lifelong friendship between the main characters, Lila and Elena, and how it reminds us of friendships in our own lives; the richly drawn female characters and the terrible men that surround them; and the blending of emotional narrative and social commentary that made The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella call them “the most thoroughgoing feminist novels I have ever read” (plus, of course, how much we hate Nino).
But, knowing that women tend to adore the books, I have often wondered: What do men think about them? Specifically, men related to me? Seeking a new perspective, I decided to call up my dad — a 60-something Englishman who likes to read, although mainly about the Nazis and Ancient Rome — to hear what he thought about these novels that cast such a spell on me.
So dad, you recently finished the fourth book. What did you think of them?
I thought it was one of the best novels I’ve read since War and Peace. I thought it was on that scale. The way she integrated various subplots was just extraordinary. Every character was interesting. The astonishing portrait of a marriage, between Stefano and Lila. The astonishing portrait of a narcissist, with — what’s his name? — Nino. A charismatic narcissist who leaves a trail of destruction behind him. And I felt a wonderful sense of place as well. I just gobbled it up. This marvelous combination of a gripping yarn, great stories, great characters, a lot of suspense, and at the same time, the powerful analysis of social, political, and ethical environment in which they lived. The second one, where they spend the summer away, that was just amazing. That was the high spot for me. I found the fourth one a bit too difficult.
“My Brilliant Friend”: “The One Everyone Is Reading on the Subway”
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Elena Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan novels’ – a series of four books documenting the lifelong friendship of two women in a changing Italy – have had a startling impact on tourism in the city, formerly passed over in favour of Venice or Rome, or dismissed by tourists as too dirty or dangerous.
With the books translated into numerous languages and a TV series in the works, ‘Ferrante fever’ is sweeping not just Italy but the world.
Inspired by Ferrante’s vivid descriptions, many people are now just as eager to explore the working class neighbourhoods depicted in her fiction as they are to see the city’s impressive churches and art.
While Ferrante’s true identity remains a mystery – she argues that books “have no need of their authors” – the Naples depicted in her novels is definitely real, making the series a must-read for anyone seeking an authentic taste of Italy.
Here are five brilliant Italian novels, all of which are available in English and most of which have also been adapted into films, to help you get to know the country a little better.
1. Elena Ferrante – My brilliant friend (Naples)
The first of the four-part series begins the story of the friendship between Elena and Raffaella (Lila), as Elena finds out her friend has gone missing. She recalls their childhood together in the poor suburbs of Naples during the economically difficult postwar period. The series follows their friendship in a changing Italy, as their own lives set off down different paths but remain intertwined.
In Naples, you can visit many of the locations depicted in the novel and see how the differences between the old and new, rich and poor neighbourhoods are still visible.
[Monday Reading] Finding Friends in a New Home in Michael Foreman’s “The Seeds of Friendship” and Irena Kobald & Freya Blackwood’s “My Two Blankets”
And so I finished reading two books in the past several weeks: Gloria Steinem’s My Life On The Road which I started reading in Berlin and finished in Munich and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend which I started reading enroute to Salzburg and also finished reading in Munich.
I am now starting to read the second book in the Neapolitan Series while on the way here to Prague, but didn’t get much chance to read in the evenings as we come home late after a full day of soaking in this enchanted city – Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of A New Name. Let’s hope I find a bit of time to read while in Vienna.
It’s grittier than Rome or Venice, but suddenly tourists, inspired by Ferrante’s tales of Lila and Lenu, are flocking to to Naples. Let Katherine Wilson be your guide
Ever since I moved to Naples 20 years ago and fell in love with the city, I’ve had a conversation that has repeated itself endless times with Anglo-American friends. It starts with an enthusiastic “We’re coming to Italy!” and ends with me sounding like I’m being paid by the Neapolitan tourist commission. My friends tell me that they’re going to Rome, Florence, Venice. Not Naples. They may travel through it to get the boat for Capri or the Amalfi Coast… but stay there? No, thanks. We’ve heard that it’s dirty and dangerous. Gritty, rough, corrupt.
What about the Caravaggios? The medieval castles in the centre of the city? The magnificent opera house that Mozart longed to play in, and food that is arguably the best in the world? Not to mention the people – big-hearted, hilariously charismatic Southerners who can entertain your pants off just by answering a simple question about directions!
Better not. There are so many other places to see in Italy.
I gave up. You don’t want to experience it? Your loss. Statevene a casa, they would say in Neapolitan dialect. Stay at home.
And then a woman – or a man, somebody! – calling themselves Elena Ferrante wrote four novels set in the poorest, most corrupt part of Naples at the poorest, most corrupt time in the city’s history. Now all my friends want to visit Naples. The human psyche is a mysterious thing.
I loved Ferrante’s novels, don’t get me wrong. I’m embarrassed to say that I screamed an ugly swear word at my children at one point when they interrupted me toward the end of book four. The writer not only portrays female relationships with depth and nuance, but captures the contradictions that are at the heart of Naples and Neapolitan culture. She/he/it recreates the gritty, the dangerous, and the lurid and sets it against the sensory paradise that is Napoli. A bright beam of Mediterranean light exposing the dark recesses of the human heart. ‘O sole mio, indeed.
“We’re coming to Naples!” women friends have begun to tell me. They’ve read Ferrante and they can’t get enough. They want to take the risk, to live it. They want to follow one of the Ferrante tours that are now cropping up in the centro, and the Rione Luzzatti. They also want to drink in the beauty of the volcano, the sea, the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida. And eat a pizza that will take them to new levels of transcendence.
Naples has been a tourist destination for three thousand years. Wealthy Roman families came to summer along the coastline of Posillipo, now the posh residential area of the city, and in the 1700s Naples was the place to be: Jean-Jacques Rousseau commented that “if you want to know if you have a spark within you, run – no fly! – to Naples…” Stendhal said, “Naples and Paris, the two only capitals.” But perhaps the last person who was as successful as Ferrante in getting women interested in visiting Naples was Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of the British consul to Naples Lord Hamilton and lover of Lord Nelson. Lady Emma gradually abandoned all social conventions when she settled at the magnificent Villa Emma on the shoreline of Naples, eating and dancing her way to pure Neapolitan bliss. Artists depicted her in her stunning milieu, and the paintings were hotter than Vesuvian lava.
Ferrante not only portrays female relationships with depth and nuance, but captures the contradictions that are at the heart of Naples and Neapolitan culture
Come to Naples, I can imagine her urging her girlfriends in the UK, and I’ll show you a good time.
Recently, I met up with a group of friends who, spurred on by Ferrante, came to Naples and did a tour of the centro. I took them for lunch to Antonio e Antonio, a delectable restaurant and pizzeria that looks out over the medieval Castel dell’Ovo on the waterfront. After eating an aubergine parmesan that made one of my girlfriends throw a napkin over her face and head and say SILENCE! I CANNOT RECEIVE ANY OTHER STIMULI WHILE I AM EXPERIENCING THIS, they asked where they should go in the afternoon.
I toyed with the idea of some of the magnificent Bourbon palaces, the ruins of the Roman city of Pozzuoli. But those suggestions, beautiful as they are, are not seductive. And as Lady Emma and Elena Ferrante have showed us, Naples does not impress, it seduces.
“Let’s go see Villa Emma.”
My friends, after their day of seeing the many colours and emotions of this city (and hitting back numerous shots of the sweet syrupy nectar that is Neapolitan coffee) agreed unanimously that they want to come back. Naples may be outside their comfort zone, but guess what? It’s worth it.
The top Elena Ferrante destinations:
- The stradone of Elena and Lila’s childhood is based on Via Taddeo da Sessa, which cuts through the Rione Luzzatti: a poor area flanked by the Napoli train station and the prison of Poggioreale (one of the most crowded and dangerous in all of Italy).
- Piazza dei Martiri, the site of Lila’s elegant shoe store, is one of the most beautiful piazzas in the middle of the chic Chiaia shopping district.
- The rettifilo, where the characters in Ferrante’s novels take Sunday strolls, is the bustling Corso Umberto, where you can find inexpensive shops and street food.
- The Bagno Elena beach club (Via Posillipo 14) is next to the lido where Elena brought the children of the stationer to swim. You can rent deck chairs or enjoy the view from the beach bar.
- The Parco Virgiliano is at the breathtaking summit of the Posillipo promontory, where Michele Solara buys an extravagant apartment as a status symbol.
Our June Book of the Month is Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend. In the acclaimed first novel of her Neapolitan series, Ferrante—called “…one of the great novelists of our time,” by The New York Times Book Review—explores the struggles of friendship beneath the backdrop of tumultuous, post-war Italy.
“Many weeks have passed since I finished this novel and my only wish is that I hadn’t read it yet—it continues to haunt me in all the best ways. The narrator is Elena Greco, her best friend is Lila Carullo, and the story is of their psychologically complex friendship as girls, growing up in a rough, economically divided neighborhood on the outskirts of 1950s Naples. As children, their mutual fears and unusual imaginations bind them to each other. As adolescents, they drift and diverge but always return to their friendship… Dark, atmospheric, and untamed, My Brilliant Friend is brilliant. May it never leave me.”
– Laura, TheBookloft, Great Barrington, MA