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:
‘Why did you do all this for me?’ asked the pig in Charlotte’s Web. I don’t deserve it. I have never done anything for you. ‘You have been my friend,’ replies Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’
It’s a simple quote that encapsulates beautifully the at times miraculous, at times mystifying nature of a relationship that novelist after novelist sets out to portray. Yet the subject of female friendship — complex, affectionate, insecure, and necessary, forged in the fires of school, university and shabby rented flats — is one surprisingly few novels have truly explored.
Yes, gender is on a spectrum; yes, many girls have great guy mates; yes bromances are a beautiful thing; but the fact remains that a fromance, if you will, has a unique and magical quality that is ripe for literary exploration.That’s why Elene Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet was such an extraordinary feat. It’s subject was Elene and Lila’s friendship: not marriage, romance, adventure, though such things inevitably come into it, but friendship ‘in itself’ — in all it’s technicolored intensity. Here, then, are the stories of sisterhood that we think achieve a similar feat:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Where to start with this rich, dazzling, devastatingly insightful quartet of companionship — the most fluent (according to me and everyone I know who has read it) rendition of female friendship you could hope to find in literature? It begins with 66 year old Elena finding out her best friend of six decades, Raffaela—Lila, as she is known—has deliberately disappeared without trace: disturbing Elena, but giving her license to reflect on their relationship without her input. Growing up in 1950s Naples, the pair are drastically different: where Elena is blonde, busty and industrious, Lila is dark, small and ‘brilliant’, intellectually speaking—inspiring in Elena a bilious mixture of admiration and writhing jealousy as she, working day and night to justify her going to school rather than helping her family, is pipped to the post by her more naturally gifted peer. Ferrante captures the obsessive nature of close friendship—‘I decided I had to model myself on that girl; never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed’—and the oppressive effects of that: receiving an extraordinarily evocative letter from Lila while away on holiday, Elena writes: ‘Lila’s world, as usual, rapidly superimposed itself on mine.’ In friendships, as in all relationships, there is always an element of dependency, and Elena lives through Lila. ‘If she withdrew, if her voice withdrew from things, the things got dirty, dusty,’ Elena writes, and this vicarious energy pervades the novel as it propels and quashes her by turns. She is fascinated, inspired, motivated and subordinated. If you’ve ever inhabited this kind of all-consuming communion with a BFF, this is your song.
By E. CE MILLER
‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante
Sure, an armchair journey through Italy is not the same as actually traveling there — because um, hello, the food. But author Elena Ferrante has captured the very essence of Naples in her Neapolitan novel series (coming to screen, if you haven’t yet heard!) Elena and Lila are best friends living in 1950s Naples, Italy — a city undergoing as much change and growth as these two young girls are. As the world Elena and Lila live in evolves, their friendship evolves as well, as the novels follow each woman through the different and often divergent choices they make in their lives. My Brilliant Friend explores places as much as it does people, demonstrating how friendships are not only influenced by those experiencing them, but by their setting as well.
by Saskia Lacey/ June 8, 2017 at 7:00 am
Here are fifty incredible literary works destined to become classics (in no particular order!). Many are Pulitzer Prize winners, but there are a few dark horses. If your favorite literary masterpiece has not been included, fret not, the comments section awaits! Tell us about any we’ve missed, any you disagree with, or any you think are spot on. And then add the ones you may not have gotten to yet to the top of your teetering To Be Read pile…
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Elena and Lila are friends living in 1950s Italy. In their violent neighborhood, death is not a stranger. As the two friends grow and change, so does their environment. Elena reaches towards writing as an escape, while Lila’s ties to their neighborhood only become stronger. My Brilliant Friend is the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.
Is the unnamed, faceless author the true superstar of the 21st century? A new book explores the history of anonymity in pop culture, and beyond.
GENEVA — Daft Punk and J. T. Leroy. Romain Gary and Gorillaz. Elena Ferrante and The Residents. You may have already spotted the element connecting these creators: all conceal their identities behind avatars, aliases or pseudonyms. It is either a way to play with our changing times or intensify public interest; and it can help trigger scandals, question the very concept of what it means to be a celebrity, or even illustrate a whole new mode of existing in the world. It is a new twist on the classic story of the one who wears the mask becomes a legend.
In the Odyssey, Homer recounts how Odysseus deceives the Cyclops by swearing to him, “My name is Nobody,” which helps him escape a cruel fate by becoming anonymous, an “incognito: being complex, elusive, multifaceted, mysterious,” as the French journalist Yann Perreau writes in his essay “Incognito.”
While practices of anonymity have always existed, their benefits began to multiply during the late 20th century. In our times where mass surveillance and self-promotion coexist with the Internet’s power to obliterate individual identity, all areas of both public and private creation are being transformed.
Characters in the shape of a question mark
But a deeper exploration is needed of such strategies of laughingly deceiving the world, mocking the star system or denouncing the failings of public leaders. And it is not about uncovering the identities of those who want to remain anonymous. After all, who really cares about knowing the face behind the French street artist Invaders or the English producer SBTRKT? Rather, we should try to better understand this reinvention of self that both haunts popular culture and mobilizes fans. “What does it matter who the actual person behind the fiction is?” says Yann Perreau. “It’s only the invented characters that are interesting. Characters in the shape of a question mark.”
An author claiming their work through an individual signature: this actually would have seemed quite curious to the earliest creators, for the conception of art was once considered a collective undertaking. But this came to an end in the early Middle Ages. “The Word then bans anonymity, considering it as heresy,” says Perreau. The very notion of authorship began with the invention of the printing press and was reinforced in 1537 when French King Francis I imposed legal deposits on writers for their works, a maneuver that paved the way for state censorship and forced intellectuals to use borrowed names in order to express themselves freely without ending up in jail. François Rabelais published his work Pantagruel in 1532 under the anagram Alcofribas Nasier, Montesquieu attributed his Persian Letters to the mysterious Usbek and Rica in 1721, and later, Arthur Rimbaud wrote satiric articles for the newspaper Le Progrès des Ardennes under the pseudonym Jean Baudry.
We could find a multitude of examples, but let’s fast-forward to 1917 when artist Marcel Duchamp sent a white porcelain urinal signed “R.MUTT” to the Selection Committee of the Society of Independent Artists of New York. Scandalous. Once unmasked, the master claimed, “The art of tomorrow will be clandestine.”
“Singular, but without identity.”
A steady flow of artists would follow over the next few decades. Romain Gary, who employed the pseudonym Emile Ajar, would become the only author to win the prestigious French literary award Prix Goncourt under two different names; David Bowie took multiple identities on stage and film; Michel Foucault engulfed himself in his study of the “process of subjectivation”; Andy Warhol added production value to emptiness; Banksy makes himself a masked hero on walls around the world.
If we turn back to the final years of the 20th century, and the dawn of 21st, we see the Mexican anti-globalization activist Subcomandante Marcos, nebulously anonymous hacktivists or whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Fuat Avni. “It was because they were invisible that these actors were able to denounce authoritarian excesses and express a demand for democracy,” explains Perreau.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben described the phenomenon this way: “The being that comes: neither individual nor universal, but whichever. Singular, but without identity. Defined, but only in the empty space of the example.”
What then of this contemporary nothing? Warhol had an answer: “Look, nothing is exciting, nothing is sexy, nothing is not embarrassing. The only time I ever want to be something is outside a party so I can get in.”
by Franco Baldasso
Last fall’s noisy dispute around Elena Ferrante’s biographical identity ignited a wealth of contrasting yet instructive reactions. Whether troubled or newly admiring or indifferent to the apparent divergences between the empirical author’s life and that of her character Elena Greco, readers and critics did not venture to question the assumed existential parallel between the two. The books themselves, along with their marketing materials, quite clearly encourage it. But what if the alleged correspondence between Elena Ferrante and Elena Greco were just a diversion? What if the characteristics we identify in the latter, and implicitly attribute to the former, were only a carnival mirror shielding a deeper but less obvious commonality, the one between Ferrante and the brilliant friend herself, Lila Cerullo: namely, the unbearable loss of their presence?
The formulation and answering of this question was greatly assisted by the publication, in the same season, of Ferrante’s first work of nonfiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Thanks to the scattered pieces comprising the collection—interviews, unsent letters to critics and readers, pages expunged from the author’s novels—we can further appreciate the author’s intellectual prowess and talent as a storyteller by measuring not only the affinities, but also the distance, between her and the character who shares her first name. The carnival mirror emerges from Frantumaglia quite cracked, yet it is through such minute gaps that one of the underlying themes of all of Ferrante’s work becomes visible.
From the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend, the story told by Elena Greco is haunted by the loss of Lila Cerullo. The loss finds full narrative disclosure only in the fourth installment of the cycle, Story of the Lost Child, with an uncanny doubling, as both Lila and her daughter abandon the scene with hardly a trace. In fact, Lila consciously erases any remnant of her existence; she decides to disappear, choosing an autonomous destiny that ambiguously overlaps with the fate of the entire city in which she has been living—and struggling—her whole life. At the end of the Neapolitan Quartet, the boundaries of Lila’s character lose their edges and seemingly overlap with the contours of Naples, a city that is obsessively present throughout the four books with its uncanny beauty, unrestrained violence, and blatant lack of social justice. Naples’s unresolved contradictions are before our very eyes throughout. Like Lila, the city offers no index, defies any conclusive description, blurs contours, and subtracts itself from external gaze. In the Quartet’s last pages, however, Naples’s obsessive presence fades away from our view; its countless voices, vigorous yet enervating, turn into a distant echo. In the same vein, Lila, with her disappearance, chooses absence over the courageous and stubborn presence that marked her life—at least as it was narrated by Elena Greco.
While Lila never leaves Naples, establishing the city’s contours as the ultimate extension of her vitality, her friend Elena chooses an utterly different path to establish her own presence. The Neapolitan Quartet is also the novel of Elena’s conquest of personal independence and her emancipation from the suffocating air of the rione, from the family-ism and gender inequality that the city of Naples epitomizes, like a Pandora’s box open to the bluest sky. Elena’s liberation from the restrictions of her city is hardly straightforward and never definitive. Exemplified by her tortuous relationship with her mother, Elena’s emancipation is an ongoing repudiation of her own origins, which runs parallel to and recurrently intermingles with Lila’s struggles. To be complete, however, Elena’s emancipation needs to transcend her origins and Naples’ very boundaries—and essentially free herself from Lila’s shadow. Instead of infighting and openly challenging the violent tensions of the rione, Elena will build and solidify her presence through assiduous work toward a radically different emancipation model. By becoming a public figure as a writer, she aims at the acquisition of literary authority and intellectual respectability, a status seemingly unharmed by the quarrels of her poor neighborhood. Nevertheless, Elena’s new role requires her subjugation to other dynamics, more opaque and no less pervasive: such as the commodification of intellectual labor in the literary market and media circus. Crucially, Lila might admire, envy, even misunderstand and aggrandize her friend’s intellectual authority, yet she grasps that such a path is not for her, as it would not allow her the continuous shift of direction that best characterizes her life and exuberant vitality. To the novels’ characters and readers alike, Lila’s charisma and gravitational power lie in her creative resistance, in her obstinate refusal to accept subjugation of any sort. Her strange magnetism derives from her unique noncompliance to any steady configuration, or, to borrow a key term from Italian contemporary philosophy’s biopolitical debate, to any stable “form-of-life.”1
ELENA GRECO’S STORY SEEMS TO MIRROR ELENA FERRANTE’S EXPERIENCE. YET FERRANTE IS NOT THERE. INSTEAD, SHE HAS CHOSEN LILA’S PATH.
“A story begins when, one after another, our borders collapse,” Ferrante writes in Frantumaglia. It could be a perfect motto for Lila. Like the eccentric protagonists of Luigi Pirandello’s groundbreaking play Six Characters in Search of an Author, Lila refuses to be a character fixed once and for all. By withstanding subjugation, she preserves the constitutional fluidity of her life, culminating in her choice to disappear. Remarkably, Elena Greco’s story of their friendship begins only after all the borders have collapsed. Lila’s story can start because of her attempt at self-erasure, the final sign of her unyielding commitment to otherness. “The disappearance of women,” Ferrante argues, “should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection. There is an expression in Italian whose double meaning is untranslatable: ‘Io non ci sto.’ Literally it means: I’m not here, in this place, before what you’re suggesting. In common usage, it means, instead: I don’t agree, I don’t want to. Rejection means shunning the games of those who crush the weak.”
For Elena, instead, writing Lila’s story and their decades-long relationship is something akin to casting a spell, maybe even to conducting an exorcism. It is a form of magic she has been training for her entire life. Elena encapsulates her friend’s irresistible vitality in a character, so as to control her haunting presence—in a phase of her existence when ghosts from the past are more pressing than real people. And yet this exorcism is not the confession of a failure, but the beginning of a journey: “a writer’s journey,” as in Frantumaglia’s subtitle. Such a journey is not Lila’s anymore; it is only Elena’s.
It is precisely when Elena Greco emerges as a public figure that the assumed existential parallel between her and Elena Ferrante proves to be misleading. Through her writing talent, Elena Greco resolves to become a public persona. She sets out to fight her personal battles by following an intellectual model intimately connected to so many of the glories and delusions of the 20th century. She chooses impegno (engagement)—a form of intellectual commitment to present time—which distinguished the lives and works of numerous left-wing Western European writers in the postwar period, alongside the widely popular theories of Marxist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci. Although in different ways, the two philosophers argue for the necessary conjunction of intellectual responsibility with political action. In fact, the debate over the intellettuale impegnato (engaged intellectual) is a conspicuous component of postwar cultural, intellectual, and political history in France and Italy, and it is only partially comparable to the Anglo-American concept of “public intellectual.” In Italy, the intellettuale impegnato was clearly linked to the Communist Party and, to a minor extent, the Socialist Party. The space and impact this model had in Italian civil society had no correspondence in English-speaking countries. For the majority of postwar intellectuals in Italy, the Communist party represented the only alternative to the restoration of conservative forces after World War II.
Many of the Quartet’s characters strive to approximate this model with their public actions and personal behavior, each of them in highly idiosyncratic ways. Elena Greco’s Neapolitan teachers, her boyfriend Franco along with other students at the Scuola Normale di Pisa (Italy’s equivalent to Harvard), the entourage of academic excellence and intellectual prestige constituting Pietro’s family (which backs Elena once she marries him), and even the infamous Nino: all get personally involved in this political season. Pietro embodies the crisis of this intellectual model and Nino its progressive corruption, as they both equally steer clear of a real confrontation with the previous generation’s responsibility. As it historically appeared in Italy, the intellettuale impegnato is predominantly a male model, not without narcissistic connotations. Yet Elena initially embraces it in her personal battle to excel, to find a suitable position in a field barely accessible to women, which eventually enables her to articulate original views and gain an intellectual credibility that are fully her own.
In fact, Elena’s feminism is not ideologically predetermined; its acquisition does not have the trajectory of a destiny. She is no stock character, for she elaborates her individual ideas on gender inequality partly by emulation of other characters, female and male alike, partly by reflections on her own experience. As Ferrante is at pains to explain in Frantumaglia, “Every woman novelist, as with women in many other fields, should aim at being not only the best woman novelist but the best of the most skilled practitioners of literature, whether male or female. To do so we have to avoid every ideological conformity, every false show of thought, every adherence to a party line or canon.” Like her male counter-models and the men of her life, Elena’s struggle is not devoid of narcissistic undertones either. It is not by chance that in the Neapolitan Quartet, Elena’s anxieties to live up to the many expectations that her public persona implies often overwhelm her and recurrently take central stage.
Elena Ferrante’s own choice in this regard is precisely the opposite. Nowhere does she put it more clearly than in her 2014 New York Times interview, collected in Frantumaglia: “I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. … This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one.” Still, this decision has a history: from this angle, the disparate pieces collected in Frantumaglia can be read as the intellectual history of Ferrante’s choice of public “absence,” to abandon the stage—or rather, to desert TV studios—and let her works speak instead of her. Through her “absence,” Ferrante questions both the commodification of intellectual engagement as a media event and its debased, male-dominated forms.
Ferrante’s self-effacement continues with the very title of her first nonfiction book. “Frantumaglia” is an untranslatable word that Ferrante claims she owes to her mother’s personal version of Neapolitan dialect. It literally means “a jumble of fragments,” which she describes as a precondition of her writing. Publishing dates, the only guiding criterion of this disparate volume, chart the emerging intellectual stature of Ferrante over the past 25 years, along with her literary achievements, the resounding noise triggered by her personal withdrawal from the media circus, and all the hype surrounding her global success. Present in all the interviews included in Frantumaglia are the obligatory questions that journalists ask Ferrante regarding her real identity. Her decision to let her books speak for themselves—with no interference from their author’s biography—is supported by literary and personal reasons, which are stated throughout the volume. Ferrante’s most articulated response, however, is to be found in the dialogue with her editors first published in The Paris Review in the spring of 2015. Her provisional conclusion on this pivotal issue, which might have appeared not too long ago as a relic of old-fashioned literary snobism, looks politically timely today: “I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. The demand for self-promotion not only diminishes the role of the works in every possible sector of human activity; it now rules everything.”
Ferrante’s decision to desert the public sphere allowed her to pursue otherwise unviable narrative possibilities. Unlike her character Elena Greco, she avoided concentrating on the public construction of her figure as an author, exploring instead an alternative mode of communication with the reading public based on writing alone. Her absence is both a story of self-education and a form of resistance to subjugation by any model imposed from the outside—a path that echoes that of her character Lila. In a 2014 interview for the Italian daily La Repubblica, Ferrante claims: “It’s not a small thing to write knowing that you can orchestrate for readers not only a story, characters, feelings, landscapes but the very figure of the author, the most genuine figure, because it’s created from writing alone, from the pure technical exploration of a possibility.”
FERRANTE RELUCTANTLY ADMITS, “I LOVE LILA MORE, BUT ONLY BECAUSE SHE FORCED ME TO WORK VERY HARD.”
Because of the unique space of creative freedom Ferrante has carved for herself, Frantumaglia’s subtitle—A Writer’s Journey—bears only partial witness to the complexity of Ferrante’s choice of absence. Yet this subtitle openly reinforces the impression that her path overlaps with Elena Greco’s. The impression of superimposition between author and character, however, was not a feature of the original 2003 version of the collection published in Italy, in which the dialectal term forming the title stands alone, with no subtitle. A more fitting description of Frantumaglia would instead be “autobiography of a character,” of a unique literary character called Elena Ferrante presented as the author of her novels, whom readers around the world have loved as possibly her own most fascinating and controversial literary creation.
Yet Ferrante’s authorial absence not only occasioned her literary experiments, the “pure technical explorations of a possibility,” it also became a generative force, one of the fundamental questions her novels address, each from its unique standpoint. With her narrative, Ferrante investigates the absence of the beloved person, in the terms analyzed above, not only from a psychological perspective, but also as an anthropological and somehow transhistorical category, without indulging in essentialisms of sorts. As a trigger for storytelling, absence defies literary and genre restrictions; the universality of this experience extends beyond the circumstantiated account of recent Italian history and social structures that constitute the setting and ambiance of Ferrante’s stories, as her international success attests.
Ferrante’s authorial absence found a correspondence in the very fabric of her stories, in a narrative device that is both highly idiosyncratic and universal. Her novels work through the mourning for an intimate loss—almost always that of a woman. From the elusive Amalia in Troubling Love, to the many lost daughters of her fiction, to the missing Lila at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s stories are occasioned by a disappearance, which leaves other characters bereft not just of a person they deeply loved, but of something essential they are unable to explain. This disappearance radically shatters everyday life as they always knew it. “Disappearance” in Ferrante is never an occasion for abstract philosophical speculation, but always features narrative contours and context. It acquires a profound literary necessity through the multilayered depiction of historical contingency—as in the case of postwar Naples for her Quartet. Disappearance signals the loss of the object of desire: embodied by a full-fledged character always exceeding its simple biography, ambiguously imposing its absence over the entire story.
Ferrante portrays her characters as both supremely realistic, in the long-standing tradition of the European novel, and as allegories of loss (the mother, the daughter, the brilliant friend), whose retrieval, or lack thereof, soon becomes other characters’ dominating obsession. In a certain sense, disappearance is the true moment when all the “borders collapse,” and in which her stories’ characters are born, as they are forced to enter in a new life’s cycle, a sort of rebirth. “The loss of love,” writes the author in an early piece published in Frantumaglia, “is the common experience closest to the myth of the expulsion from the earthly paradise.” In other words, it is through this loss, which Ferrante describes explicitly as a sottrazione (subtraction) that human history originates—not unlike in her own stories.
By disappearing, by erasing their traces and thus inflicting a more piercing loss, Ferrante’s characters, such as Lila in My Brilliant Friend or Amalia in Troubling Love, actively impose on others their choice for absence. The author narrates their choices as a subtraction, literally the action of taking away a quantity from another to obtain a difference. Their absence is synonymous with their difference: profoundly affecting, if not devastating, other characters’ existences, such as Lila’s lifetime friend Elena Greco or Amalia’s daughter Delia. It does not come as a surprise, then, that in Ferrante’s novels the narrators are not characters who impose their absence by disappearing, but the ones who have been abandoned. Elena and Delia’s mourning prompts the tales of their absent friend and mother, stories which uncomfortably turn into a creeping criticism of their own lives.
Ferrante’s authorial absence engages readers in a similar way. With a piercing irony, Ferrante distances herself from the Neapolitan Quartet’s narrator, Elena Greco, in the precise moment when the accord of the two voices seems most firm and well-defined. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, when Elena Greco glimpses for the first time her newly published novel in a book store’s window, she is truly unable to contain her trepidation: “But the effort of finding a form had absorbed me. And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me. Now I was there, exposed, and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest.” In the instant when Elena Greco follows in the footsteps of her author—describing the contrasting drives within her chest after seeing her novel in a bookstore—the character-narrator goes in exactly the opposite direction of Ferrante, resolving to become an intellettuale impegnato, a public figure. The story of Elena Greco’s engagement with her own times is a major plotline of the Quartet that grows in intensity and complexity, even beyond her choice to work for public recognition and visibility. Painful difficulties and contradictions between her private behavior and public pronouncements arise, especially in the last two novels. Elena Greco proudly chooses presence despite all the difficulties and personal setbacks, as one of the hallmarks of her literary and intellectual success. In so doing she embodies a model antithetical to the ethics of writing professed in Frantumaglia.
In the New York Times interview mentioned above, Ferrante claims: “Today what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.” Ferrante’s authorial absence was born decades ago as a polemical stance against the commodification of writing and life, countering a prescriptive intellectual environment that ultimately narrowed down women’s participation in the public sphere. Today it has become an unpredictable heuristic tool, acquiring persuasive cognitive penetration and unsettling literary force in her novels.
Ferrante’s absence multiplies the sense of bereavement at the center of her stories. It brings about a fictional short circuit with the narrative disappearance of characters she is creating out of writing alone, an idiosyncratic interaction that dismantles traditional literary dynamics that we as readers are used to accepting. By implicitly suggesting—but not forcing—readers to associate Elena Greco with her real persona, Ferrante highlights the ironic distance between her own nonconformist intellectual practice and her character’s urge to become a public figure. Readers, encouraged by Ferrante to empathize with Elena Greco’s search for Lila, experience the character’s confrontational relationship with her brilliant friend. They not only endure the pain of Lila’s disappearance, but also undergo Elena’s anxieties to live up to the difficult standards set by Lila with her uncompromising difference, the radical resistance to subjugation which best describes her. Readers are supported in this feat by the impression that they are not alone in this troubling quest, as Elena Greco’s story mirrors Elena Ferrante’s experience. Yet Ferrante is not there with them. Instead, she has chosen Lila’s path, challenging power dynamics—first of all, the burden of personal biography over her own writing—and leaving readers completely alone to confront Elena Greco’s ghosts.
In the Quartet, Ferrante resolutely refrains from taking sides between Elena and Lila. Still, in a Frantumaglia interview, she reluctantly admits, “I love Lila more, but only because she forced me to work very hard.” Ferrante’s preference for absence turns into an artistic ethics, one which implicitly disavows the character that readers are led to take for an alter ego. The kind of intellectual engagement Ferrante pursues aligns her instead with Lila’s path: the intransigent resistance to the gaze of the other, to the economics and power dynamics shaping lives—female or male alike—through forced self-promotion. As it is for her character Lila, Ferrante’s “I’m not here” means at the same time, “I don’t want to.”
- For a compelling inquiry into the concept of “life” and its biopolitical consequences (seen as fundamental to the Italian philosophical tradition, though in a different manner than for other strands of continental philosophy), see Roberto Esposito, Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (Stanford University Press, 2012). ↩
JEANNE BONNER VISITS THE SALONE DEL LIBRO TO LOOK BEYOND FERRANTE
June 7, 2017 By Jeanne Bonner
Long before arriving this month at the Salone del Libro, an annual book fair in Turin that’s Italy’s largest, I was asking myself this question: where are the great Italian women writers?
I’ve been reading Italian fiction for two decades but this particular question has motivated much of my reading since I discovered Elena Ferrante, the author of The Days of Abandonment and the Neapolitan series of books, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. Her emergence, for me, was like a wakeup call, particularly since she’s created female characters who seethe with ambition, anger and longing. Women with wandering, industrious minds who choose their sexual partners with abandon. Yes!
I want to find more of these female characters, which are particularly well-wrought when created by a woman. So where are the great Italian female writers, doing justice to this topic and genre, and countless others?
Well, in fact, there are many fine Italian women writing fiction and nonfiction today. But other than la Ferrante, few of them appeared on Italian best-of lists at the end of last year or roundups of up-and-coming authors. I know—I scoured the year-end best-of lists, the mid-year versions and a few other lists, too. I also thumbed through suggestions on services like Audible.
Italian women writers, of course, do emerge from these searches—but they never constitute the majority of the writers suggested, or even simply half. Perhaps it sounds like a pedestrian observation or a problem well-known to everyone. But I’m reminded of political protest signs I’ve seen this year: We’re still dealing with this?
It bears mentioning that best-of lists often have currency only within a clubby world of type-A literary folks who keep score on everything.
Yet such lists are a mirror for any society (they also constitute a handy guide for readers and serve as primers for book fairs—more about this shortly). And it is telling that a few of the lists of top Italian books of the year, or recommended reading for the summer, include no women at all!
To wit, the cultural magazine Panorama, one of Italy’s largest weeklies, published a list earlier this year of the ten best Italian novels of the 21st century so far, and included a single woman: Michela Murgia’s Accabadora.
While women are mentioned prominently in places like the magazine Il Libraio and the blog Sul Romanzo, in most roundups, best on best, you’ll find three out of ten spots going to Italian women authors (and sometimes the lists are mixed with foreign authors—notably, foreign women authors at times fare better than Italian women). On its website, the giant publisher Italian Mondadori, for example, includes Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Margaret Mazzantini on a list of top contemporary Italian authors, in addition to Ferrante.
(The same math is at work in this year’s Strega competition, in which three individual women have cracked the list of twelve finalists, including author Wanda Marasco; a fourth woman, who is a co-author, has also been nominated).
This phenomenon is unsettling because the question behind these lists wasn’t how many copies of the books were sold, but which were the best? After all, even prominent male authors of literary fiction and nonfiction sell poorly, reflecting the market’s taste.
I contacted the author Elena Ferrante, who chooses to remain anonymous and publish under a pseudonym, for a story I wrote for The Times about a citywide casting call for children in Naples to fill the starring roles in a mini-series based on her hit novel “My Brilliant Friend.”
Ms. Ferrante missed deadline by a good few days, but nevertheless the author had worthwhile thoughts. Below are her answers about what it’s like for a writer to have their major work adapted to the screen, to have regular kids incarnating her characters, how much she contributes to the production and whether she thinks the show will take off like “Game of Thrones.”
The first thing I’d like to know is what it feels like to have all these young kids in Naples, many from really disadvantaged sections of the city, lining up in the hopes of being Lila and Lenù? Obviously the books have had great acclaim, but I wonder what thoughts and feelings it evokes in you to actually have the works entering the lives of kids not so dissimilar to the ones you described.
For me it was a radical change. The characters, the neighborhood are all created from words, and yet they move from literature to the screen. They leave the world of readers and enter into the much more vast world of spectators, they meet people who have never read about them and people who, for social circumstances or by choice, would never read about them. It’s a process that intrigues me. The substance of the books is reworked according to other rules and other priorities, and it changes nature. The kids themselves who show up at the auditions are the first sign of this. They know little or nothing about books. They are spectators who hope to become actors, either for play or a shot at deliverance.
You’ve clearly described the characters, and the casting director, director and producers all have a clear idea of what they are looking for based on your descriptions. And they think that kids who have grown up in tough environments are best to convey the spirit of those kids. What do you think? Would you also rather have non-actors playing the roles (there is some risk there!) or would you prefer more practiced child actors?
Child actors portray children as adults imagine children to be. Children who are not actors have some chance to break free of the stereotype, especially if the director is able to find the right balance between truth and fiction.
A lot of these kids, frankly, have never heard of Elena Ferrante or the Neapolitan novels. Most of them have visions of TV stardom dancing in their heads. Are you, someone who has studiously avoided the stardom track, worried that the hysteria around the auditions could fuel the celebrity obsession so many young people now have?
They are children who take their lead from the myths of cinema, of television, definitely not those of the written word. They want to be on screen, to be center stage, to become stars, and this is not their fault — it’s the air breathed in the adult world and, as a result, in theirs. To be part of television today is one of the most powerful aspirations of the masses, and anyone, poor or well off, considers it an extraordinary opportunity. Across all the social classes, poor and rich, cultured and uncultured.
On the flip side, do you feel like this is an opportunity to introduce kids, many of them disadvantaged, to the joys of reading? I don’t mean just reading your books, but getting them interested in books in general.
Naturally, I hope that happens. But the opportunity we are talking about has little, if anything, to do with reading. Children are there to be part of show business, and that’s it. That doesn’t mean that some of them won’t discover that this all started with a book; that behind the world of show business, with its many moving parts and conspicuous cash flow, there always is, albeit in a subservient position, the evocative power of writing and reading.
What is your hope for this production as far as its impact on Naples and its image in the world, especially after the unflattering depictions in the movie and popular television show “Gomorrah”?
Do you want to sign off on the children before they are officially cast? Do you want to make sure that they are true to your vision?
I don’t have this skill set. Sure, I’d very much like to weigh in, but I would do it cautiously and knowing that it is useless to say, “Lila has little or nothing to do with that body, that face, that gaze, that way of moving,” etc. No real person will ever match the image that I or a reader have in our minds. This is because the written word, of course, defines but by nature leaves much to reader’s imagination. The visual image instead shrinks those margins. It is destined to always leave out something that the words inspire — something that always matters.
What has your involvement been with the production? The director and producers told me you send notes on the script, and have helped them design the set out near Caserta. What do you want the set to look like?
The neighborhood is a composite of different places in Naples that I know well. That’s always the case when I write, both with people or things. I don’t know what will happen on the screen. For now, my contribution to the set design is limited to a few notes on whether they look right. As far as the collaboration on the script, I don’t write, I don’t have the technical skills to do it, but I am reading the texts and send detailed notes. I still don’t know if they will take them into account. It is very likely that my notes will be used later on, in the writing of the final draft.
They have also told me that you imagine the show visually as a fairy tale, that they shouldn’t be scared to go beyond the book and depict villains as monsters, etc. How faithful do you want them to be to the novels?
No, no, it is a realistic tale. It is childhood that is colored by elements of the fantastic, and surely Lila is too. As far as faithfulness to the book, I expect a faithfulness compatible with the needs of visual storytelling, which uses different means than writing to obtain the same effects.
And lastly, HBO is involved in the production. Do you hope, or maybe fear, that this becomes the next global phenomenon, Italy’s “Game of Thrones”?
Unfortunately, “My Brilliant Friend” doesn’t provide the same kind of plot points.
• Ferrante Fever has flared up in Naples, where nearly 5,000 children are vying to audition for HBO’s adaptation of “My Brilliant Friend,” the first of the four smash-hit novels by Elena Ferrante.
The open casting call has injected hysteria and hope in parts of the southern Italian city that is poor in resources but rich in characters.
Separately, our correspondent visited the nearby Villaggio Coppola, built in the 1960s with utopian ambitions. It’s now, in her words, “a sad illustration of Southern Italy’s violated beauty and neglect.”
By JASON HOROWITZ
MAY 18, 2017
NAPLES, Italy — A legion of children raced up a dead-end street in Sanità, a tough Naples neighborhood dripping with laundry and suddenly brimming with the promise of stardom.
Marta Reale, 10, her smile broad, her bangs blanched, made her way to a recreation center’s doorway through the dense crowd of other children, sunlit cigarette smoke and mothers fanning themselves on the seats of scooters. Above her, more children were hanging out the window, and above them, more were crammed onto a balcony.
Then she approached the desk where she gave her name and age and got a numbered slip of paper and a parental release form. The sign above her head read, “Dream.”
This was not just any casting call, but one for “My Brilliant Friend,” an adaptation of the first of the four smash-hit Neapolitan Novels written by Elena Ferrante, whose hidden identity enthralled the literary world and whose books have sold more than a million copies.
HBO and the Italian state broadcaster RAI caught the Ferrante Fever and are producing an eight-episode mini-series inspired by that first book, introducing international viewers to the complicated relationship of two remarkably gifted girls, Lila (“that terrible, dazzling girl”) and Lenú (“I liked pleasing everyone”), as they grow up and apart in a violent, vivid Naples neighborhood in the lean postwar years.
From a structural point of view, tension and compression often meld into each another. In this building, two volumes are interwoven by strong connecting rods, extended columns and daring beams, with one of the two seemingly suspended from the other. With its mass and swirled dynamism, the suspended volume (that we will call Lila) seems to be slipping away from the one that is holding it up (that we will call Elena) making it extend and stretch as if it was Lila that was shaping Elena and providing her with her dynamic energy, so vital to any piece of architecture.
The name of this architectural complex is My Brilliant Friend, after Elena Ferrante’s novel in which the relationship between its two protagonists (Elena, the narrating voice, and her childhood friend Lila) is a constant, alternating flux of blurred identities and imperfect dreams.
Now that we know that this is My Brilliant Friend, let’s try to analyze and allow ourselves to be transported by the stresses that occur within its architectural elements. As with structural calculations, the reading and interpreting of a building of this kind are not at all linear and predictable, but rather fluid and certainly not univocal.
It is evident that if one of the two elements were to be missing, the other would have no reason to exist. Without Lila there would be no Elena, and vice versa.
There are points in the structure where it is not clear in which direction stress is expressed. The weight is transferred from the supporting structure onto the supported one—a problem for both the calculations and the idea we were getting of the relationship between Lila and Elena.
It is a building in which neither volume has, so to speak, clear control over the other—i.e., upon which element the functioning of the whole depends. At times it seems like Elena, while making the extraordinary effort to support her, wants to detach herself from Lila.
We, too, are suspended—suspended between tension and compression. Motionless. If we were the very fibers of the structure, if we were—as we actually are, as both visitors of the building and readers of the novel—experiencing these forces, we would also understand and feel the additional torsion, shear, and momentum.
In reading a structure such as this, it is better not to stop at its surface. “ … We delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.” Suspension, patience and attention. The physics of narrative has its own way of arriving at structural audacities made of hidden tensions and compressions. We must always be ready.
In collaboration with Giuseppe Franco.