by Adam Parker
I risk sounding grandiose, but Elena Ferrante’s kaleidoscopic “Neapolitan Novels” — really one big book divided into four parts — constitute a momentous milestone in an Italian literary tradition that began with Dante and Petrarch.
And the big milestones are not that many: Dante’s “Divine Comedy” written at the cusp of the Renaissance; Petrarch’s “Canzoniere” and Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” which legitimized the use of vernacular language and emphasized an enlightened humanism; Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” a melodrama that morphs into an early example of realism, as well as Leopardi’s anguished, hyper-personal poetry; and then the works of 20th-century modernist playwright (and novelist-poet) Pirandello and his fellow Sicilian, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who authored “The Leopard.”
Of course, Italian literature is replete with numerous writers of terrific brilliance, several of whom appeared during the 20th century, but the literary works we might consider “monumental,” either for their sheer ambition or their social impact, probably can be counted on two hands. Ferrante’s tetralogy now is among them.
It fools you at first. With the first volume, “My Brilliant Friend,” you think you are reading about a long-lasting attachment formed by two young girls growing up in a working-class Neapolitan neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. By the time you are 100 pages into the second volume, “The Story of a New Name,” you begin to understand that the neighborhood is both a microcosm of Naples’ peculiar social and cultural identity and a symbol of the whole of the southern Italian experience. As such, it is a generous canvas on which Ferrante paints her scenes and presents her characters. This story is about being Neapolitan, being Italian, during the second half of the 20th century. The full sweep of those tumultuous times runs like a strong current beneath the narrative, occasionally bursting forth with such turbulence that it becomes, briefly, the inescapable focus of the story.
By the end of the second volume, Ferrante’s goal is evident: through a seemingly modest story devoted mostly to human relationships, she is presenting us with an epic of the age, a chronicle imbued with Ferrante’s penetrating intelligence and incisive observations. Her protagonists, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco (the narrator), represent two sides of the southern Italian character. One accepts her hyperlocal condition, the other rebels against it; both are in conflict with the civilized north. Indeed, the stubborn north-south divide in Italy, a demarcation that’s as much political, economic and cultural as it is geographical, persists in the novels as an important element that helps to set in relief Elena’s and Lila’s struggles.
Much has been written about the mysterious Ferrante, whose real identity remains unknown. I will not linger to contemplate where the writer lives, whether she is really Neapolitan, whether she is really female, whether the adoption of her pseudonym was meant for marketing purposes, or any of the other claptrap discussed in the media. For none of it matters.
What matters is what’s in the books, and what’s in the books is an extraordinary telling of friendship with strains of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) social criticism. Ferrante touches on the politics of identity, gender, family and sex. She includes aspects of Italy’s social and political corruption, organized crime, fascist brutality and radical left-wing terrorism. She pokes at the bubbles of academia and intellectual elitism. And, at the same time, she effectively demolishes all pretense that these concerns are somehow more important than bonds of friendship forged in the crucible of Neapolitan strife.
The precise neighborhood in which much of the action takes place is hard to pin down. Ferrante doesn’t name it, and the nearby features she sites — a vehicular tunnel, the shopping area, thestradone (throughway), the old and new parts of the neighborhood — are generic enough to leave even a native Neapolitan guessing. It’s one of Ferrante’s ways of making a specific experience universal.
A reader need not be familiar with Naples (or Italy) to appreciate these books, though the reader who is familiar with the setting will thrill at the depictions. This reviewer happens to be married to a Neapolitan and well-exposed to the unique dialect, mannerisms, conversational habits and attitudes of the city. The honesty and accuracy of Ferrante’s accomplishment, therefore, felt to me particularly acute.
Cultural nuances are presented casually, such as the violence that permeates the neighborhood, the New Year’s fireworks that imperil residents, the cold shiver that accompanies any approach of a camorrist and the hostile response, the emphasis placed on school work, the imaginative play, the poverty, the determined entrepreneurship and fierce territorialism, the allegiance to one’s home base and the people who live in it.
At the core of the story is the relationship between Elena and her extraordinary friend, Lila. They are interdependent, relying on one another in all sorts of ways. Lila is the stronger of the two, whose natural intelligence and creativity helps her overcome (partially and sporadically) the hostile environment in which she is trapped. Elena idolizes her and envies her.
But it is Elena upon whom fortune rains. It is merely a damp sprinkle at first, but as she matures and makes her way through school, and then university, she finds her voice and literary success. Lila is not so lucky; she is chained to the neighborhood by circumstances, denied a complete education and forced into an unhappy marriage while still very young.
But in her prison, Lila draws astonishing designs, literally and metaphorically. Her chutzpah keeps her intact, even in the face of danger. But at a cost. That cost accumulates through the novels, and continues to climb even after an unimaginable tragedy.
Elena, instead, moves away from Naples for a stretch, marries, has children, enjoys literary fame, then turns her life upside down in one violent gesture, returning to the neighborhood from which she came to confront her origins, her inner nature and her friendships, especially the one with Lila.
Along the way, Ferrante has her characters navigate through oppressive, misogynistic social norms and a fracturing Italian society torn between the protectionism and corruption of the Christian Democratic regime and the failed rebellion of the socialist left.
It is difficult to overstate the effectiveness of the fast-moving plot and the way it captures so accurately the experiences of Ferrante’s Neapolitan readers, at least the ones over 40 who remember the pre-Berlusconi days, who vacationed in Ischia, who walked along Corso Vittorio Emanuele or visited the book vendors near Piazza Dante, who knew about the daily struggle required to keep a small shop operating, the feigned beneficence of the camorrists, the domestic turmoil and the ever-present, sometimes hard-to-name, threat that permeated the atmosphere.
I suppose it is possible to invent all this out of thin air, but somehow I doubt that’s what happened. Ferrante likely is from Naples, or at least intimately familiar with the city, and I would bet that some of the episodes in the tetralogy are drawn from real life. Which is to say that this four-part novel meant to give the illusion of autobiography probably is in fact quasi-autobiographical.
The interactions between parents and children, the sleazy exploitation of a teenage Elena by the father of her friend, the days on the beach in Ischia, the protests outside a meat factory, the class distinctions made between educated intellectuals and working-class Neapolitans of the neighborhood, the challenges endured by Elena as she tries (and fails) to balance motherhood and her career — all of this probably was written from experience.
With the third and fourth books — “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and “The Story of the Lost Child” — Ferrante’s story of friendship barrels through the decades, recounting the ups and downs of motherhood, relationships, careers and, most of all, the neighborhood.
Ferrante has given us much more than a panorama of Naples, more than a trenchant description of community, more than an investigation into the inner workings of a lifelong friendship and the ways in which it informs the actions of the two protagonists. Though it flirts sometimes with melodrama, the storytelling never crosses the line. Instead, rooted primarily in a form of Italian realism, it presents two female anti-heroes on a long journey of discovery where clear answers often remain elusive.
More importantly, the Neapolitan Novels are an exercise in camouflaging the subversive within the epic prose tale. Ferrante is raising questions about what it means to be a woman in Italy. While Elena, liberated and successful, struggles to fulfill her responsibilities as a mother, wife and lover, Lila endeavors instead to find creative expression within the confines of her patriarchal environment and the economic constraints it imposes. In some ways, Elena fails, stumbling over her social destiny, while Lila, who decides to accept her prescribed destiny irreverently, succeeds.
Isn’t Elena’s professional success at least partly a result of accepting certain norms, of playing the game? And isn’t Lila’s entrapment the consequence of a radical refusal to accept the status quo?
Elena, the narrator, recognizes this contradiction on more than one occasion, wondering if she owes her success directly to Lila’s sacrifice, questioning whether it wasn’t really the specter of her friend, trapped not only in Naples but in Elena’s conscience, that she has been channeling all along.
The books are beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein, head of the copy editing department at The New Yorker. Goldstein is true to the original, which is written in straightforward Italian with a smattering of Neapolitan words thrown in. The English versions flow with such ease one forgets they are translations.
Ferrante, by now famous worldwide, has published several smaller novels, some of which deal with similar themes. But the sheer scope of the tetralogy and the concentration of the long narrative make this a singular achievement. History provides the context, culture the language and expression, politics the tension and human relations the storyline.
Ferrante’s essential ambition is not excessive; she merely wants to convey the full significance of this remarkable friendship, informed as it is by the experience of living in Naples. But what she has produced is, it turns out, monumental, thrilling, unforgettable.