Book 2 of The Neopolitan Novels has us still following the lives of Elena (Lenù) and Lila (Lina), two childhood friends, but these two are adults now and their lives diverge more and more. This segment of their story is concerned with love, and finding love, and losing love, but it is even more concerned with class, social class and upbringing. Elena graduated from high school, a true accomplishment in her neighborhood where almost no one stayed in school after the elementary level. Studying separates her more and more from most of the neighborhood children she grew up with. Elena sees that by continuing her schooling she will lose a connection with everything she has known in life and everyone, even her family. She will never fit in here again and it is hard to give up this sense of belonging to something.
Lila, now called Lina, has glued herself to the neighborhood by becoming a wife and a mother, but she is unhappy with her husband. He is too coarse for her; he beats her. Lina has been praised for her intelligence. She knows she is quick and creative. She thinks she can use her natural abilities to succeed even without an education. But poverty is a terrible weight and a trap. Without her husband she has no income and must give up any thought of moving up in the world, even give up the times when she tries to return to her studies on her own. She has a child that must be supported so she tries to pin her hopes to him and give him a start in life that will lift him out of the poorest class in the city.
Elena learns that it is not so easy to enter a new social sphere. The people who grew up in that milieu have the confidence that comes of the traditions of a lifetime spent in that social group. Language gives you away as not belonging, accent gives you away. In her neighborhood people speak a dialect of Italian that is almost incomprehensible to people who do not live there. It operates like a thumbtack holding the inhabitants of the neighborhood in place. Educated people speak several different levels of Italian just as we have language that varies from functional to intellectual. Your contemporaries can place you by the way you speak and the words you use. They can place you by your manners and by the way you dress. Moving up in the world means changing some very essential things about yourself and these changes separate you more and more from childhood family and friends.
Elena experiences moments of great doubt about whether she can succeed in rarer circles, or indeed, about whether she wants to be so lonely and cut off from the comforts of her old neighborhood life in order to be successful. Lots of people experience this sort of culture shock when they leave home and go away to college. When college is finished we almost all go home for a while to get our bearings and find our new path. Perhaps we all feel that estrangement from our childhood and our families when we go home. Perhaps not everyone does. However, when the change is as exponential as Elena’s the pressures and doubts are great and the transformation must be apparent to all of her old chums and to her best friend Lila especially. Although Elena sees little of Lina during these years her friend has kept notebooks which she entrusts to Elena. These writings and the news she hears of Lina from friends and her infrequent visits allow her to follow the thread of Lina’s life.
This second book, entitled The Story of a New Name made me want to see what Elena Ferrante will have to tell us in the last two volumes. So far I see much more of what is universal in these books than what is specific to Italy, as should be true in good fiction. If we lived in a time when books were not routinely translated that would limit us in ways that would make us more fearful of other cultures than we are (and we still harbor some powerful xenophobia). These novels, so far, do not just translate from one language to another, but from one culture to another.
By Nancy Brisson