The rise of Elena Ferrante is tremendously pleasing, even from a purely practical point of view. Ferrante is famous for two things: her novels, andfor not existing. Writing under a pen-name, scrupulously guarding her identity, eschewing literary public relations, the Italian writer has managed, in these days of hype, to find a massive global audience without flogging her physical self as an integral aspect of publication at all. Splendid.
I’m not against literary promotion. It has ensured that virtually no British town is without access to some sort of book-based event. Still, it’s good to be reminded that creative individuals still have choices, that writers don’t necessarily also have to be travel-crazy public speakers, that different sorts of people can find their audience in different ways, and that quality counts.
Yet, the quality of Ferrante’s books is so outstanding, so particular, that this last point is moot. Ferrante’s books are a success because they feed a hunger for something simple yet rare – literary masterworks without pretension, mannerism or sentiment, epic yet domestic, as compulsive as a good thriller and as thought-provoking as a self-conscious “novel of ideas”. It’s easy to say after the fact, but imagining that these books would not find many, many readers is like imagining that water would not find its way downhill.
The books that made Ferrante such a sensation are the Neapolitan quartet, the last of which, The Story of the Lost Child, has recently been published in the UK. They follow the lives of two girls born in the poverty- and crime-ridden Neapolitan ghetto of the early 1950s. (If you intend to read the novels, but haven’t yet, proceed here with caution.)
Both children are highly intelligent, but only one is levered, at first through the sponsorship of a primary school teacher, to complete a university education. It is the formally educated child, Elena Greco, who narrates, and it’s widely assumed that the Neapolitan novels are a roman à clef, and that Elena is Elena. Which doesn’t seem like much of a push.
For Elena, the woman who succeeds academically and escapes from “the neighbourhood”, it is her friend, Lila Cerullo, who is the brilliant one. (The first book is called My Brilliant Friend.) For Lila, Elena is the brilliant friend, and the frustration both women feel at the choices of the other is one of the motors that makes the characterisation so satisfyingly deep.
As a reader, you become intimately involved with these people, both remarkable in their own ways, and both endlessly, courageously fighting against the limitations of their lives. Lila seems the truly fascinating one of the two, but you do have to remind yourself that you are being led by Elena’s own intense obsession with Lila. As a narrator of herself, Elena may be a little unreliable. (My idea of heaven would be Ferrante announcing that she is going to tell the story of the women’s lives all over again, this time from Lila’s perspective, in an echo of Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandria Quartet.)
Yet there’s far more to it than that. The books also form a social and political history of Italy in the second half of the 20th century, a record of sexual and feminist awakening in women at that time all over the west, and a portrait of industrial decline and technological advancement. All of this is done so naturally, so unobtrusively, so authentically, so osmotically, that it meshes with the reader’s own experiences and memories in a way that makes the books intimate, as if you are part of their story too, and their story is part of yours.
The vividity of the recreation of “the Neighbourhood” has led critics to laud Ferrante as the contemporary standard bearer of Italian neorealism. But her work reminds me of Latin-American magical realism as well. There’s no actual magic. But there’s a sense of forces at work that we don’t fully understand, and can’t “diagram” using logic as Lila diagrams various human processes when she becomes an early adopter of computer technology.
As the quartet begins, for example, Lila has just made herself disappear as, Elena tells us, she always said she would. Quite how Lila has managed this complete removal of herself from her world is the story that only an understanding of Lila’s whole life can explain.
For me, although there is little specific allusion to it, the presence of some understanding of neuroscience lurks in the narrative, providing it with a feeling of strangeness. Lila is preternaturally clever, by Elena’s persuasive account, much more intelligent that she is. But Lila is self-destructive too, and given to odd fugues, in which she feels herself to be somehow detached from her surroundings.
These fugues sound to me like sensory overload, which intellectually gifted people are recognised as being vulnerable to. They also can have a tendency to be resentful of authority and of structures that impose duties other than those that the protagonist chooses for herself. So, for me, Elena is straightforwardly clever, but Lila is a savant.
It’s fashionable to believe that the middle-classes seek neurological atypicalities because they can’t face up to the idea that their kids are thick. The Neapolitan novels can be read, in part, as an illustration of how much more damaging such attitudes are for those who don’t have the knowledge or resources to seek diagnosis. A lot of the kids in the neighbourhood turn out to be smart adults, despite failure at school.
My theory, of course, may be nonsense. But it’s part of the brilliance of Ferrante’s own opacity as an author that the reader can find in the work what she wants to. You could spend your life rereading these books, and continually find new aspects of them to speculate on and consider. In fact, I intend to do just that.