Jan 1, 2018 – Isabelle Blank
Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s operatic Neapolitan Quartet, a series that spans four volumes and six decades of friendship, traces the intertwined lives of characters Lila and Lenù. The series begins with Lenù and Lila’s childhood as they grow up in a poor Neapolitan neighborhood and traces their subsequent lives as wives, mothers and ultimately lonely old women. The quartet is a series of cyclical events encapsulated in a larger cyclical narrative structure. The first book of the series, entitled “My Brilliant Friend,” opens at the fourth book’s close. Rino, Lila’s son, telephones Lenù to tell her that his mother has gone missing. At the end of the final book, entitled “The Story of a Lost Child,” there is no answer as to where Lila has disappeared. However, Ferrante writes such a thorough description of Lila’s character and psyche throughout the series that, in the final book, it makes sense as to why she erased herself. It seems not to matter where she’s gone. Lila is mean, whip-smart and down-trodden — how could she not want to disappear, how could she not want to melt into what she calls the “dissolving boundaries” of her complicated world?
Ferrante weaves an intricate cloth depicting detailed scenes and characters that repeat themselves over and over to construct a patterned, sprawling tapestry. These intimate, very often domestic, scenes that Ferrante writes involve only the characters introduced in a list at the beginning of each volume. Though the scenes are private and the characters insular, the story conveys broad-reaching meditations on class, femininity and politics.
Lenù and Lila are foils for one another. Lenù is blonde, studious, eager to please, self-doubting and ambitious, whereas Lila is dark, naturally brilliant, mercurial, mean and irresistible to those around her. The story is told from Lenù’s point of view, but the two friends understand one another on such a deep and complex level that the reader is often privy to Lila’s perceived inner thoughts. The two are paradoxically bound to, yet at odds with, one another. Lenù cannot resist Lila’s magnetism, her cutting intellect and her unbounded passion even when Lila is at her most cruel. Ferrante’s prose is cerebral. The reader is immersed not only in Ferrante’s cinematic scenes, but also in Lenù’s body and her psyche. Ferrante lays bare Lila and Lenù’s most unlikable traits: their respective failures as mothers, their self-absorption, their gnawing anxiety, their seeming inability to experience joy and their mutual jealousy.