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.
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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.
Jan 1, 2019 – Dorothea Shefer-Vanson
This novel, the first of a quartet, has become an international bestseller and has been widely praised in literary circles. So I was overjoyed when I was able to pick up a copy someone had discarded at one of the airports I visited recently. I found it a wee bit difficult to get into at first, but once I had overcome that initial barrier I found myself entranced by the account of the friendship between two girls, Elena (Lenu) and Lila, in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of post-war Naples. The book starts with their childhood, when they both still played with dolls, continues with their teenage years and adolescent agonies, and ends with the wedding of one of them, though still a teenager.
The author manages to describe the feelings and experiences of those childhood years, with the close but fluctuating relationship between the two girls, as well as between them and the people around them, in a vivid and engaging way. The writing style does not always read smoothly, and at times there are too many jerky stops and starts in the narrative flow for my taste, but the intensity of the emotions and events described help the reader to overcome any reluctance he or she might have to continue reading.
The first few pages of the book provide an index of the various families who comprise the main characters of the neighbourhood and the book, and I found this very helpful, as the Italian names and surnames are sometimes difficult to differentiate and thus to imagine the characters. After all, when half the boys are called Gino, Nino, and Rino, that does not help the reader to distinguish between them.
Answers to questions from Merve Emre
Dear Elena (if I may),
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I am a great admirer of your writing. I am also grateful to you for writing the kinds of novels every literature professor dreams about teaching. For the past two years, I have assigned the Neapolitan novels in my class on contemporary fiction; it is rare to encounter novels that my students are desperate to keep reading and that also evoke so many urgent, illuminating conversations about genre, form, history, class politics, feminism—everything I want my students to enjoy thinking about in and out of the classroom.
On a more personal note, I have found myself returning to Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay many times since having my two children. No other novel I have read captures the vicissitudes of motherhood with such precision: the power and the vulnerability of caring for others, the intimacy and distance between mother and child. It was painful to realize when I became a mother that my mother had a separate life, a different self, before she became my mother; painful, too, to realize that my children might not appreciate this about me until too late. Your novels have helped me think with greater clarity about what it means to be a mother and what it meant to be a daughter. For that, I am grateful too.
Merve Emre: The television series My Brilliant Friend opens with a shot of an iPhone 7—Lenu’s cell phone—ringing in the dark. It was a shocking opening for me. The novels have very little engagement with media forms and technologies that are not books: no one sees a movie, no one listens to music, no one reads articles on the computer. What does reading mean to you?
Elena Ferrante: You’re right, the two friends belong to the world of print books, as do I, who invented them. Elena realizes late that she doesn’t have a musical education, for example. Her escape from the neighborhood is centered completely on literacy: reading and studying are the only tools available for breaking the boundaries within which she happened to be born. But don’t forget that Lila, although she’s the first to see the great value of books, will be a pioneer in electronic media.
ME: What does reading mean to you?
EF: Reading is an extraordinary exercise. It doesn’t come naturally; it requires commitment—you have to transform pages crammed with signs into worlds full of life. But once reading has become an intellectual necessity, you can no longer do without it. I’m a very involved, disciplined, collaborative reader. I never abandon a book; even if I don’t like it, I read it to the last line. I always learn something. And I get enthusiastic—perhaps excessively so—when a book is a happy surprise. I recently read a novel that I thought was excellent. I read it in Italian, but I’d like to try to read it in English; I liked its tone very much. It’s called Outline, by Rachel Cusk.
ME: There are moments in previous interviews where you betray an impatience toward literary criticism and, in particular, literary theory for its relentless drive to interpretation and argument. Yet you are an extraordinarily attentive and sensitive reader and strong interpreter of your own fiction and the writing of others. What are your ethics of criticism? How do you believe professionalized readers should write about or teach literature?
EF: I don’t like the impressionistic type of critical work. I don’t like it when a text is taken as an occasion for talking about something else. I prefer works that concentrate on the page, that rigorously analyze the expressive strategies of the writer. A good critical work says to the reader: here’s where the author started from, here’s where he wanted to take me, here are the means he used, here are the goals he was aiming for, here are his debts to tradition, here’s why I liked or hated it.
ME: In Frantumaglia, you hint at your disappointment with the film adaptations of your novellas. What made you decide to let RAI adapt My Brilliant Friend? What kinds of audiences do you want the televisual adaptation of your work to reach?
EF: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I had no role in the production decisions. The means by which a film comes to be made are unknown to me. But I’ve always been curious to see what happens to my characters and my stories when they leave the page and venture into other media. I like it when they become audiobooks, plays, films. In fact, the more they enter into people’s lives through these other media, the more it seems to me that they are alive and in good health. Naturally I reserve the right to have an opinion on the works that originate in my texts. But I have to say that, even when I don’t like the result, I don’t suffer. Books, once they’re written, can sustain anything: writing makes them in a certain sense invulnerable.
ME: Why did you choose Saverio Costanzo as the director?
EF: I didn’t choose in this case, either, I’ve never had that power. But I have to say that choosing would have been a real problem. I’m a devoted moviegoer, I love films, but I have no expertise in that area. I get excited about films that are very different from one another, films made by people who have nothing in common. If I really did have to decide I would never manage it. I merely proposed a list of names, directors whose work I have a lot of respect for. Among them was Costanzo. When I found out he’d been chosen, I was very pleased.
ME: When I spoke with Saverio last week, he described a process of creating characters on screen that he called “conveying density”: a way of representing a character’s consciousness without explicitly psychologizing her actions, so that a viewer could sense a great and unexplored depth to her every statement, glance, gesture. He suggested that this was a practice of character creation to which you also ascribed; indeed, a practice you had taught him to create continuity between the representation of characters in the novel and on the screen. Can you explain how density works in the novels and how you imagine it working on the screen? Or if “density” is not the right word, can you discuss the difference for you between representing consciousness and psychologizing it in your fiction?
EF: I fear that in a short space I’m in danger of appearing confused. The definition of psychologies is an essential part of the narrator’s work. They focus the motivations both superficial and profound that guide the actions and reactions of the characters in the course of the story. But what decides the success of a character is often half a sentence, a noun, an adjective that jams the psychological machine like a wrench thrown into the works and produces an effect that is no longer that of a well regulated device, but of flesh and blood, of genuine life, and therefore incoherent and unpredictable. In films that effect is produced, I think, by a flash in the gaze, by an involuntary grimace, by an unexpected gesture. It’s the moment when the psychological framework breaks and the character acquires density.
ME: There is an irritating tendency in contemporary writing on motherhood to position motherhood as a psychological impediment to literary creativity—as if a child must steal not only time and energy from his mother but also language and thought. Your novels are ambivalent on motherhood as a creative experience and an experience conducive to literary creativity. (For a short time, Lila transforms motherhood into an act of grace; Lenu’s greatest professional success comes after she becomes a mother even though she complains about her obligations.) How do you think about representing the interplay between (creative) production and (physical) reproduction? What is the relationship between time spent taking care with one’s words and time spent taking care of one’s children?
EF: I very much like the way you’ve formulated the question. But I want to say that it’s not right to speak of motherhood in general. The troubles of the poor mother are different from those of the well-off mother, who can pay another woman to help her. But, whether the mother is rich or poor, if there is a real, powerful creative urge, the care of children, however much it absorbs and at times even consumes us, doesn’t win out over the care of words: one finds the time for both. Or at least that was my experience: I found the time when I was a terrified mother, without any support, and also when I was a well-off mother. So I will take the liberty of asserting that women should in no case give up the power of reproduction in the name of production. Although the difficulties are innumerable, the two can coexist. “Giving birth” is our specificity, belonging only to women, and no one should dare to take it away from us. Men use the metaphor of birth to speak of their works. For us giving birth is not a metaphor—neither when we give birth to children nor when we give birth to books, ideas, images of the world. We know how best to do both.
ME: Can you say a little bit more about being a terrified mother? What is the nature of this terror for you?
EF: I’m afraid of mothers who sacrifice their lives to their children. I’m afraid of mothers who surrender themselves completely and live for their children, who hide the difficulties of motherhood and pretend even to themselves to be perfect mothers. I prefer mothers who proceed consciously through trial and error, looking for an equilibrium but knowing that any equilibrium is precarious.
ME: Despite the emphasis on female friendship in the reception of the novels, Lila and Lenù end up as singular, lonely characters. Yet the promise of literary and artistic collaboration between women—women reading together, women writing together—is a persistent and seductive fantasy across the novels. Collaboration emerges as a source of artistic bliss and temporary enchantment as well as an opportunity for solidarity among women. How have your experiences with collaboration across media (adaptation) and language (translation) approached or fallen short of this fantasy?
EF: Yes, and it’s not always easy. In general it seems easier for women to collaborate with men. There’s probably a very old habit of submitting to the authority of men, or of developing suitable behavior for pretending to accept it, and meanwhile pursuing our particular aims. Certainly it’s more complicated to recognize the authority of another woman; tradition in that case is more fragile. And yet the path is this: once the expertise of the other woman is recognized, we have to learn to collaborate. It works if, in a relationship between the person in charge and the subordinate, the first wants the other to grow and free herself from her subordinate status, and the second gains her autonomy without feeling obliged to diminish the other. Conflicts are inevitable, but we have to persist. It should never be forgotten that women are stronger together and can achieve astonishing results.
ME: Can you say more about why it is difficult to recognize the authority of another woman?
EF: Although things are changing, in some corner of our brain we continue to think that true authority is male, and that every woman with authority has it only because males have given it to her. It’s as if in that tiny corner we were saying to ourselves: why do I submit to a woman when I could replace her if I go to the true source of power? It’s a trend that should be fought against, by demonstrating through the excellence and force of our works that female authority isn’t a concession from men, doesn’t have value only in the women’s space to which they tend to relegate us, but is an autonomous quality and an asset that is fundamental for the whole human race.
ME: In a previous interview with the Times, you suggested that the children who showed up at the auditions for My Brilliant Friend were “spectators who hope to become actors, either for play or a shot at deliverance.” Last week when I spoke to Saverio, I also spent an afternoon with Ludovica, Elisa, Gaia, and Margharita, the four girls who play the parts of Lila and Lenu. Something that struck me about them is that they have all read your novels—I imagine they are among your youngest readers. For them, the experience of learning to embody your characters has also served as a literary education. (Elisa, for instance, is now reading Little Women; Margharita has moved on to Elsa Morante.) What might young readers—young women readers in particular—learn from the Neapolitan novels?
EF: I don’t know how to answer you. I hope the books communicate the urgent need for solidarity between women. Not only that. I’d like the youngest readers to take from them the necessity of being properly prepared: not in order to be co-opted into male hierarchies but in order to construct a world different from the one we know, and to govern it. Reading good books, always studying, regardless of the work she intends to do, should be a part of every girl’s plan for her life. The only way not to let what we’ve gained be taken away from us is to be smart and capable, to learn to design the world better than men have so far done.
ME: Your readers have an extraordinary desire to open imagined channels of communication with you; to write about their experiences reading your novels. (For example, I recently saw a play in which four Ferrante readers become so absorbed by the Neapolitan novels they start transforming into the characters and writing about their transformations—a kind of magical realist fan fiction.) How do you make sense of the fervor with which the Neapolitan novels have been greeted? Has the reception of the novels surprised you? Has it revealed to you anything you did not already know about their distinctiveness?
EF: I think that writers never really know what book they’ve written. We tell a story and try to do our best, pouring onto the page our experience, our literary sensibility, without sparing ourselves. I realized very slowly that the book contained in itself much more than what I thought I had written. Certainly I wished to describe a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Certainly I knew clearly that Lila would contain the worst and the best of what I know about my sex. But only in time, for example, did I discover how effective the neighborhood was, and the figures who populate it. Or the seductive banality of Nino Sarratore.
ME: The actresses wanted me to ask you a question on their behalf: Have you seen them on screen and, if so, did you glimpse the characters you created in their performances? Did they capture the sensibilities of Lila and Lenu?
EF: I’ve seen the first two episodes. The child Lila is perfect, which will make things hard for the actresses who have to continue the story. The child Elena also effectively sets up the character of the narrator, which is in many ways indecipherable.
ME: One of the most illuminating parts of Frantumaglia for me is your exchange with Mario Martone and the incredible detail with which you attend to the structure of individual scenes, lines, costumes, sets as they are described in his script for Troubling Love. Can you give me some examples of scenes, lines of dialogue, or actor directions from My Brilliant Friend that you discussed at length with Saverio? Were there instances where you resisted or vetoed his initial interpretation of a scene? (In our conversation, Saverio mentioned the beginning (the frame narrative) and the end (the banquet).)
EF: My experience with Martone was brief. He sent me the screenplay, I sent him my impressions on reading it. I did the same thing with Costanzo, in the same way, but the work went on much longer, the exchanges of letters were more numerous. My task was to read and annotate the eight treatments and the eight screenplays that Costanzo and his collaborators were writing. I confined myself to saying what I thought when I felt that the story wasn’t working. Maybe in more than a few cases I was overly frank. Maybe I intervened, with some presumptuousness, in irrelevant details. The problem is that I’m not an expert, and I thought the whole time that stories and screenplays were the film, that every line was therefore crucial. In reality the set is really the important place. The work of writing is a point of departure, it merely traces a map that is to help the director give form—an enormous amount of work—to the story through images.
ME: People frequently ask you about your literary-historical influences, but I am curious about your engagement with contemporary art and literature. What living writers do you enjoy reading? What films do you enjoy watching? What music do you enjoy listening to?
EF: I would have to give a very complex answer, talking about various stages of my life. I’ll answer you some other time.
ME: The novels are not written in Neapolitan dialect. Lorenzo Miele (the executive producer) and Saverio described a densely mediated process of reconstructing and translating the dialect for the television show: hiring a historical linguistic to recreate the 1950s idiom, sending the script to you to check it, then sending it to Ann Goldstein to translate it into English for HBO. Can you talk a little bit about the complications—and perhaps the betrayals—of this layered translation? From the perspective of an Italian spectator, does dialect offer new possibilities for representation?
EF: Yes, in the book there is no dialect but a dialectal cadence strengthened at times by brief insertions of Neapolitan. The film, on the other hand, needed the dialect of the neighborhood, that is, a dialect that was harsh, pre-television, and that in Elena, and also in Lila, would later yield to average educated Italian. That work was done in the screenplay and gives, at least to the Italian viewer, the opportunity to rediscover what impoverished, essentially dialect-speaking Italy was like.
ME: Were there any subplots you discarded from the novels? Were there characters you initially thought you would develop as more rounded, substantial presences that you relegated to a minor status?
EF: No. The book kept all the elements that were present in the first draft. It was a very rare instance, for me, of a story written without structural reconsiderations.
ME: For the past two months, my son has developed an obsession with The Beach at Night despite my sense that he was not the target audience for it. Why did you decide to write a children’s book? How did it differ from writing a novel like My Brilliant Friend, which is focalized through a child’s point of view?
EF: I wrote The Beach at Night for a four-year-old friend of mine who, to her great disappointment, had just had a little sister. It originated in a book I had just finished, “The Lost Daughter.” I was very surprised that my little book was considered unsuitable for young children—my friend had liked it. I’ve always believed that stories for children should have the same energy, the same authenticity, as good books for adults. It’s a mistake to think that childhood needs syrupy fables. The traditional fairy tales weren’t made with cotton candy.
ME: My son also just had a little brother. He is also disappointed by it. Perhaps he’s a better reader than I’ve given him credit for.
Elena Ferrante’s answers translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
In its November 4 issue, the New York Times Magazine published a feature by Merve Emre on the novels of Elena Ferrante and the HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend. Emre’s article included excerpts from an interview with Ferrante—the only interview the author has granted to an English language outlet on the occasion of the TV series premiere on November 18. Below, by agreement with Ms. Emre, is the complete text of their exchange, conducted over email in September 2018.
The many admirers of Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend” — the first in her smash series of four books about a pair of Neapolitan women moving through life — likely have two questions about the Italian-language TV adaptation. The first is how faithful it is to the source material, and the second is how well it matches the novel’s effortless ability to move within its protagonist’s mind, tracking subtleties of emotion.
The answers are mainly good news: In the limited series’ first two installments, screened at the Venice Film Festival Sept. 2 before a November bow on HBO, the story closely tracks the movement of the novel. And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. “My Brilliant Friend” is an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.
Elena (Elisabetta De Palo), seen briefly in a framing device, receives a call that her old friend has gone missing, and, knowing that this disappearance had been a long time coming, finally sits down to write the story of their intertwined lives. We shift back in time to the dusty and sun-drunk Naples of the 1950s, where Elena (played as a child by Elisa Del Genio) spent her girlhood, in the perpetual company of the bright but troublesome Lila (Ludovica Nasti). Later in the series, we’ll see them as teenagers.
As we see young Lila throwing crumpled paper at teacher’s-pet Elena, De Palo’s voice intones, “She impressed me at once because she was so bad.” The voice-over device seeks to accomplish the same thing as did the narration of the novel, documenting every childish thought with the wisdom of adulthood. But this device is less than necessary. Young Del Genio and Nasti have the unforced chemistry of the kids from “The Florida Project,” the last great entertainment about kids left largely unsupervised. And their frolics in a community whose rules they barely understand make far more potent points about the innocence of youth, and how it falls away, than the voice-over ever could.
In one striking scene, the pair are reading “Little Women” together as a fight breaks out; the viewer has been able to track the complicated social dynamics leading up to it, but to the children, it’s just noise, one among many interruptions that must be endured as a part of a childhood ending too quickly.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Soon to be an HBO series, book one in the New York Times bestselling Neapolitan quartet about two friends growing up in post-war Italy is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted family epic by Italy’s most beloved and acclaimed writer, Elena Ferrante, “one of the great novelists of our time.” (Roxana Robinson, The New York Times)
Beginning in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Ferrante’s four-volume story spans almost 60 years, as its protagonists, the fiery and unforgettable Lila, and the bookish narrator, Elena, become women, wives, mothers, and leaders, all the while maintaining a complex and at times conflictual friendship. Book one in the series follows Lila and Elena from their first fateful meeting as 10-year-olds through their school years and adolescence.
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.
“An intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends,” writes Entertainment Weekly. “Spectacular,” says Maureen Corrigan on NPR’s Fresh Air. “A large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman,” writes James Wood in The New Yorker.
Ferrante is one of the world’s great storytellers. With My Brilliant Friend she has given her readers an abundant, generous, and masterfully plotted page-turner that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight readers for many generations to come.
Seven years ago, it took just one book for an as-yet-unknown Italian novelist to become one of the most prominent personalities of the early 21st century. What made the phenomenon even more unheard of was that it involved an author who had written an epic with undeniable literary ambitions, not a book for young readers, like the “Harry Potter” series. It was a saga with numerous allusions to Italian history, anchored by geography to a small corner of Naples, and these facts seemed to condemn in advance its success as an export.
But the triumph of “My Brilliant Friend” is also stupefying because its author does no promotion at all. Elena Ferrante is a woman without a face, whose identity is known only to her Italian publisher, E/O. Her name is a pseudonym, its sound a discreet homage to the great Italian novelist Elsa Morante, author of “Arturo’s Island” — whose work, Ferrante says here, she has always appreciated. No one has ever succeeded in revealing Ferrante’s true identity, although certain names have circulated in the press: Domenico Starnone, a Neapolitan screenwriter and novelist, and winner of the Strega Prize in 2001; or Anita Raja, a Roman translator. Nearly two years ago, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti published a scoop, identifying Raja as Ferrante, after having scoured her tax returns and deciding that her assets exceeded that of the average income of a person in her profession. Against all odds, the supposed revelation of the identity of Ferrante provoked a worldwide scandal.
For her readers, Ferrante must be allowed to remain anonymous, should she wish to be. An international outcry rose up, from enraged readers who sought to protect the writer they love, and whose anonymity they wish to preserve. Nothing of the like had ever been seen before.
The series that begins with “My Brilliant Friend” has sold more than 5.5 million copies in 42 countries, with more than 2 million copies sold in the U.S. Published in America by Europa Editions, the books are the successful result of an editorial policy that favors demanding work and patience over instant gratification. For literary professionals, it is a sign that in a time of faint-heartedness, there is still another path to follow: Rather than publishing feel-good books for silly entitled people, you can reach a wide audience betting on real literature.
Where does the great enthusiasm for the tumultuous portrait of Lila and Elena (also called Lenù), the products of an underprivileged neighborhood of Naples, whose friendship begins in the late 1950s, come from? Aside from the thirst for long narratives, which we also see in the incredible boom in TV series, readers of the world seem to want to read about genuine feelings. Who among us has not dreamed of living the complex and spellbinding relationship of these “brilliant” friends? Lila gives up her studies to work in the family shoe factory, while Elena decides to receive a classical education and ends up leaving Naples to seek her professional fortune elsewhere. The proliferation of plot points and the multitude of characters, at a time when the hallmark is simplicity, is a further enticement. The fact remains that the book is first and foremost a war machine: It seduces slowly and possesses a hitherto unseen power of attraction and that irresistible je ne sais quoi that makes an overnight success.
And Ferrante? Behind her mask, the novelist distills her public statements with the stinginess of a pharmacist. The interviews she has given may be counted on one hand, and they have been exclusively conducted via email, with her Italian publisher as intermediary. Her desire for anonymity is non-negotiable. For her, once a book has been finished, it must stand on its own. Breaking her near-constant silence here, she explains how she conceived “My Brilliant Friend” in secrecy. She confides the profound joy she gets from writing and speaks of the pleasure she feels in responding to the curiosity of her readers through the volumes she writes. Far from having shut herself in an ivory tower, she discusses #metoo and launches a stirring appeal for the enduring gains of feminism. She compares the experiences of the great Hollywood actresses to those of the poor women of Naples, in a particularly stirring defense. Finally, she gives some unprecedented clues that may help us understand not who she is, but something that all in all is the same: why she writes.
Do you recall when you first had the idea for “My Brilliant Friend”?
I can’t give you a precise answer. It may have had its origin in the death of a friend of mine, or in a crowded wedding celebration, or perhaps in the need to return to themes and images of an earlier book, “The Lost Daughter.” One never knows where a story comes from; it’s the product of a variety of suggestions that, together with others that you are not aware of and never will be, excite your mind.
Did you know from the beginning that the complete work would require four volumes?
No. In its first rough draft, the story of Lila and Lenù fit very easily into a single, substantial volume. Only when I began to work on that first text did I understand that there would be two, three, four volumes.
Was the whole story planned in advance before the actual writing started?
No, I never plan my stories. A detailed outline is enough for me to lose interest in the whole thing. Even a brief oral summary makes the desire to write what I have in mind vanish. I am one of those who begin to write knowing only a few essential features of the story they intend to tell. The rest they discover line by line.
The first book of the series was published [in Italy] in 2011, the last in 2014 — a short period of time for such an ambitious endeavor. Had you written most of the series before the publication of the first volume? Can you tell us about the timing of the writing/publication of the novel?
I started in 2009 and spent a year, more or less, completing the entire story, with its various turning points. Then I began to revise, and I discovered with great pleasure that from the first page, the text was expanding; it grew and grew, becoming more detailed. At the end of 2010, given the mass of pages that had accumulated merely for telling the story of the childhood and adolescence of Lila and Lenù, the publisher and I decided to publish it in several volumes.
I imagine that when the first novel of the series was published, you were able to write in tranquility. Then came the novel’s extraordinary success, which could have jeopardized your writing. How were you able to keep your work from being disrupted by that overwhelming success?
It was a completely new experience for me. As a child, I liked telling stories and finding effective words for the small audience of kids of my age who gathered around me. It was electrifying to sense their encouragement, to feel that my listeners wanted me to continue, to pick up the story again the next day, the next week. It was a thrilling endeavor and an exciting responsibility. I think I felt something similar between 2011 and 2014. Once I was cut off from the media clamor — which was possible thanks to the absence that I chose starting in 1990 — that childhood pleasure returned: of giving form to a story while an increasingly vast and attentive audience wants you to tell more and more. While readers were reading the first volume, I was refining and finishing the second; while readers were reading the second, I was refining and completing the third; and so on.
Looking back, how would you describe the writing process? Was it effortless and smooth from the start? Or, on the contrary, did you have moments of doubt? Did you go through many drafts, with a lot of cutting and editing?
In the past, I’ve had a lot of problems with writing. I’ve always written, ever since adolescence, but it was a struggle, and I was generally dissatisfied with the result. The consequence is that I’ve rarely been convinced that I should publish. In the case of this very long story, things went differently. The first draft rolled along without running into any obstacles: The pure pleasure of telling a story dominated. Also, the work that ensued in the following years was surprisingly easy, a kind of permanent party. The honing of the four volumes, their polishing for publication, was essentially faithful to the first rough drafts and at the same time expanded and complicated the material. No crisis, in other words, no doubts, very few cuts, few rewritings, a cascade of new inserts. In my mind, there remains the impression of a tidal wave, and when it’s gone, you’re happy that you’re still alive.
In a letter to Mario Martone, you said that any distraction could make writing seem unnecessary, pointing out the fragility of it all. However, no writer seems stronger than you are, and more capable of building a colossal work of fiction. Would you agree that this combination of fragility and strength is essential to your writing?
My greatest fear is of suddenly feeling that to devote so much of my life to writing is meaningless. It’s a sensation that I’ve felt very often, and I’m afraid that I will again. I need a lot of determination, a stubborn, passionate adherence to the page, not to feel the urgency of other things to do, a more active way of spending my life. So yes, I’m fragile. It’s all too easy for me to notice the other things and feel guilty. And so it’s pride that I need, more than strength. While I’m writing, I have to believe that it’s up to me to tell this or that story, and that it would be wrong to avoid it or not to complete it to the best of my abilities.
Where does the vital energy of your writing come from?
I don’t know if my writing has the energy you say it does. Of course, if that energy exists, it’s because either it finds no other outlets or, consciously or not, I’ve refused to give it other outlets. Of course, when I write, I draw on parts of myself, of my memory, that are agitated, fragmented, that make me uncomfortable. A story, in my view, is worth writing only if its core comes from there.
In your description, Naples is rough, violent and unpleasant, and even more so in the second half of the fourth volume, where Lila and Lenù have to confront violence on every side. Have you witnessed acts of extreme violence in Naples yourself? How have Neapolitans been able to cope with violence over the years, and have they developed a particular understanding of the violence innate in human beings, and do you perhaps share that?
One has to be very fortunate not to be touched even slightly by violence and its various manifestations in Naples. But perhaps that’s true of New York, London, Paris. Naples isn’t worse than other cities in Italy or in the world. I’ve spent a lot of time coming to an understanding of it. In the past, I used to think that only in Naples did the lawful continuously lose its boundaries and become confused with the unlawful, that only in Naples did good feelings suddenly, violently, without any break, become bad feelings. Today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask. Since it is a city by nature of astonishing beauty, the ugly — criminality, violence, corruption, connivance, the aggressive fear in which we live defenseless, the deterioration of democracy — stands out more clearly.
Lila and Lenù suffer a lot throughout the books. Why did you choose to subject them to so many tragic experiences of all kinds?
It doesn’t seem to me that their sufferings are very different from those which women endure every day in every part of the world, especially if they’re born poor. Lila and Lenù fall in love, marry, are betrayed, betray, search for a role in the world, face discrimination, give birth, raise children, are sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy, experience loss and death. I do use the novelistic, but relatively sparingly. The emotional bond we establish with characters is generally what makes their story seem like an endless series of misfortunes. In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others, we feel their suffering, only when we learn to love them.
In the fourth volume, why did you choose to make Nino so cruel and superficial?
I wanted to describe the effects of superficiality when it’s combined with a good education and moderate intelligence. Nino is a smart but superficial man, a type of man I’m very familiar with.
Why did the narrative require the traumatic and nightmarish disappearance of Tina, in the fourth volume, near the end of the story?
Here I will decline to give you my reasons — I prefer that readers find their own way. I can only emphasize that that event was always, even before I began to write, one of the few definite and inevitable stops on the narrative journey that I had in mind.
In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others. We feel their suffering only when we learn to love them.
Lila is enthusiastic about new electronic tools, like PC computers. She seems to be driven by an instinctual brilliance, and yet, surprisingly, she understands these logical machines. Is she more unpredictable than Lenù, or is it the other way around?
Lila, in my intentions, is never enthusiastic. She applies her intelligence to whatever, for one reason or another, comes into the field of action that she herself is given, starting from the moment she is forced to leave school. It’s because her father is a shoemaker that she designs shoes. It’s because Enzo is taking correspondence courses from IBM that she becomes involved with electronics. Unlike Lenù, who uses education to force the boundaries of the neighborhood and escape, eagerly aspiring to write, Lila acts brilliantly on what turns up, without using up her own capacities in any of the things she happens to get involved in. If one wanted to put it schematically, the only long-range project that really excites Lila is the life of her friend.
In the book, women struggle. Men often take advantage of them. How do you feel about the #MeToo protests throughout the world?
I believe that they have put a spotlight on what women have always known and have always been more or less silent about. Patriarchal domination, even — despite appearances — in the West, is still very entrenched, and each of us, in the most diverse places, in the most varied forms, suffers the humiliation of being a silent victim or a fearful accomplice or a reluctant rebel or even a diligent accuser of victims rather than of the rapists. Paradoxically, I don’t feel that there are great differences between the women of the Neapolitan neighborhood whose story I told and Hollywood actresses or the educated, refined women who work at the highest levels of our socioeconomic system. And raising one’s voice, saying, “Me too,” seems a good thing, but only if we maintain a sense of proportion: Just causes in particular are damaged by excesses. Even though the power of [offenders] large and small at the center of the world or on its peripheries lies in not being ashamed of the various forms of rape they subject us to and, by means of a repulsive stratagem, in making us think that it is we who should be ashamed.
Would you predict — and would you call for — a new feminism to emerge from #MeToo?
A certain disdain for the feminism of mothers and grandmothers has spread among the younger generations in recent years. There is a conviction that the few rights we have are a fact of nature and not the product of an extremely hard cultural and political battle. I hope that things change and that girls will realize that we have millenniums of subservience behind us, that the struggle should continue and that if we lower our guard, it won’t take much to eliminate what, at least on paper, four generations of women have with great difficulty gained.
Would you agree that your novel belongs to a tradition of popular narratives (such as those of Alexandre Dumas), with a lot of action and characters, rather than to a modernist, more minimalist approach to storytelling?
No. I can decide to reuse some of the powerful devices of popular literature, but I do so, like it or not, in an era completely different from the one in which that literature performed its task. I mean that with some regret, I can in no way be Dumas. To draw on the great tradition of the popular novel doesn’t mean creating, for better or for worse, that type of narrative but rather using it, distorting it, violating its rules, disappointing its expectations, all in the service of a story of our time. Rummaging in the great historical warehouse of the novel and the anti-novel is today, in my opinion, a duty for anyone who is by profession a narrator. Diderot could write “The Nun” but also “Jacques the Fatalist.” We can erase the boundary between literary experiences that are different from one another and use them both, at the same time, to give a shape to this historical moment. A lot of action, many characters or the minimalism you allude to, taken separately, don’t carry us far today. Let’s try to get out of useless cages.
You once said that you discovered Flaubert when you were quite young, in Naples. When did you first fall in love with a book, or with a character, and also with literature?
Yes, I really loved “Madame Bovary.” As I girl, when I read, I dragged the stories and the characters into the world I lived in, and “Emma,” I don’t know why, seemed close to many of the women in my family. But long before “Madame Bovary,” I loved “Little Women,” I loved Jo. That book is at the origin of my love for writing.
Have you been influenced by women writers (possibly French, like Colette, Duras, etc.)?
As a girl, I read all kinds of things, in no particular order, and I didn’t pay attention to the names of the authors — whether they were male or female didn’t interest me. I was enthralled by [the characters] Moll Flanders, by the Marquise de Merteuil, by Elizabeth Bennet, by Jane Eyre, by Anna Karenina, and I didn’t care about the sex of the writer. Later, in the late ’70s, I began to be interested in writing by women. If I stick with French writers, I read almost all of Marguerite Duras. But the book of hers that I’ve spent the most time with, studied most closely, is “The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein”; it’s her most complex book, but the one you can learn the most from.
How do you feel about female writing? Do you believe that the category exists — that there is female writing and male writing? For example, Elsa Morante versus Hemingway? As for your own style, would you say it’s a combination of both male and female?
Certainly, female writing exists, but mainly because even writing is powerfully conditioned by the historical-cultural construction that is gender. That said, gender has an increasingly wide mesh, its rules have been relaxed, and it is more and more difficult to reconstruct what has influenced and formed us as writers. For example, I learned from the books I loved and studied, by male and female authors, and I could easily name them, but I’ve also been deeply affected by sentences whose provenance I no longer remember, whether it was male or female. The literary apprentice, in short, passes through channels that are hard to identify. So I would avoid saying that I was formed by this or that author. Above all, I would avoid saying that I was formed essentially by women’s writing, even though I very much loved and still love “House of Liars,” by Elsa Morante. We are in a period of great change, and the presentation of gender is at risk of being not only unconvincing but not really valid.
Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water.
When you read a book, what do you appreciate most?
Unexpected events, meaningful contradictions, sudden swerves in the language, in the psychology of the characters.
In the book, motherhood is an enemy of writing (Lenù is so busy bringing up her daughters that she can’t get the concentration she needs). In your own experience, how is it best to write? Alone? Seeing no one? Living a secluded life? Or, on the contrary, going out a lot, drawing inspiration from meeting people, possibly being in love?
When one is in love, one writes very well. And, in general, if someone does not have experience of life, what does he or she write about? Spending one’s time focused only on writing is the ambition of an adolescent, of a sad adolescent. Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water. That said, life, when it has the force of a tidal wave, can devour the time for writing. Motherhood, in my experience, is certainly capable of sweeping away the need to write. Conceiving a child, bringing it into the world, raising it is a marvelous and painful experience that over a fairly long span of time — especially if you don’t have the money to buy the time and energy of other women — takes away space and meaning from all the rest. Naturally, if the need to write is strong, you sooner or later find an arrangement that leaves you some room. But that holds for all the fundamental experiences of life. They hit us, they overwhelm us, and then, if we don’t end up dead in a corner, we write.
Was it hard to wake up one day thinking, “The story of Lila and Lenù is over. I’m finished with it.” Like giving birth and suddenly feeling empty in some way?
The metaphor of birth applied to literary works has never seemed convincing to me. The metaphor of weaving seems more effective. Writing is one of the prostheses we have invented to empower our body. Writing is a skill, it’s a forcing of our natural limits, it requires long training to assimilate techniques, use them with increasing expertise and invent new ones, if we find we need them. Weaving says all this well. We work for months, for years, weaving a text, the best that we are capable of at the moment. And when it’s finished, it’s there, forever itself, while we change and will change, ready to try out other weaves.
Have you possibly considered writing a sequel, or side stories (the way J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter)? The ending does allow it, doesn’t it?
No, the story of Lila and Lenù is over. But I know other stories and hope I’ll be able to write them. As for publishing them, I don’t know.
Your novel values friendship more than anything else, even more than love, which is unpredictable and can vanish. Do you value friendship in that way, in your own life?
Yes, friendship has to do with love but is less at risk of being spoiled. It’s not constantly threatened by sexual practices, by the danger that exists in the mixture of feeling and the use of bodies to give and be given pleasure. Sexual friendship is more widespread today than in the past, a game of bodies and elective affinities that tries to keep at bay both the power of love and the rite of pure sex. But with what results I don’t know.
I have been asking many writers about where they write. The most recent was Tom Wolfe, describing his desk and the colors of his office walls — blue. Could you describe the place where you write (or, if not, can you tell us about some objects that you care about and which are around when you write)?
I write anywhere. I don’t have a room of my own. I know that I’d like a bare space, with white, empty walls. But it’s more an aestheticizing fantasy than a real necessity. When I write, if it’s really going well, I soon forget where I am.
This interview originally appeared in the French newsmagazine L’Obs in January 2018. Jacob is a L’Obs staff writer covering books and is the author of a nonfiction book “La guerre littéraire” (Héloïse d’Ormesson publishing).
Our critics chose 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.
By Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai
March 5, 2018
In 2016, the feminist press Emily Books held a panel in Brooklyn titled, a bit cheekily, “What Is Women’s Writing?” There was no consensus, much laughter and a warm, rowdy vibe. Eileen Myles read from a memoir in progress and Ariana Reines read a poem, wearing a dress with a pattern of a city on fire. All of this felt exactly right.
But even if it puts your teeth on edge to see “women’s writing” cordoned off in quotes, you can’t deny the particular power of today’s women writers — their intensity of style and innovation. The books steering literature in new directions — to new forms, new concerns — almost invariably have a woman at the helm, an Elena Ferrante, a Rachel Cusk, a Zadie Smith.
For Women’s History Month, The Times’s staff book critics — Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai and myself, Parul Sehgal — sat down together to think about these writers who are opening new realms to us, whose books suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.
As we put together a reading list, we introduced a few parameters, for sanity’s sake. We consigned ourselves to books written by women and published in the 21st century. And we limited our focus to fiction, but not without some grief. Memoir has emerged as a potent political and literary force in recent years (see the terrain-shifting work of Maggie Nelson, for example). And poets like Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif and Tracy K. Smith are some of the most distinctive voices working today.
The books we selected are a diverse bunch. They are graphic novels, literary fiction and works inflected with horror and fantasy. They hail from Italy, Canada, Nigeria and South Korea. They are wildly experimental and staunchly realist.
Any list, especially one as idiosyncratic as ours, is bound to leave off some worthy contenders, like “Wolf Hall,” say, or “Gilead” or “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (to name just a few). This is not a comprehensive list, far from it. We hope it will be seen as a start — a way to single out these extraordinary books and the ability of fiction to challenge and reimagine the world. Some of the books we selected, like “Americanah,” bring a fresh slant to the novel’s natural concerns about character and fate and belonging. Others, like “How Should a Person Be?,” pluck new questions out of the air, in this instance about authorship and authenticity. They ransack classic stories (“American Innovations”) and invent genres out of whole cloth (“Her Body and Other Parties”).
Every one of these books features a woman at the center. She is brainy (Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy), grimy (“Homesick for Another World”), terrorized (“The Vegetarian”) and all of the above (the new mother in “Dept. of Speculation”). Each book’s utterly distinct style emerges as its women try to invent a language for their lives.
You could say these books are on the vanguard, but to suggest just one vanguard feels so insufficient. What makes these books so rich is their plenitude, the variety they contain and embody. “My story flows in more than one direction,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. “A delta springing from the riverbed/with its five fingers spread.” — Parul Sehgal
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster novels, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, follow the entwined lives of two childhood friends with an intensity and psychological acuity that put contemporary fiction on notice. The books are also social novels of remarkable and subtle power, offering a history of postwar Italy and the terrorism of the Camorra. But everything comes filtered through the personal lives of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, ordinary women who would never make it into the history books. Lila and Elena grew up in the slums of Naples, in a clinch so ardent and dangerous that to call it friendship feels hideously inadequate. The series carries us through 50 years, as the women rescue and betray each other, struggle to escape the slums and their mothers, and become mothers themselves. Ferrante captures the barely contained violence of domestic life and is taboo-shattering in her unsparing and relentless exploration of the secret lives of women — their ambivalence and shame. Like Lena, these books give off “an odor of wildness.” Their intelligence cuts into the skin. — Parul Sehgal
Many love you because you’re unavailable. Despite international acclaim, you have firmly chosen to remain out of the public eye, concealing your true identity and writing under a pseudonym. You choose this in part because, as you’ve said, “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” How can we not be intrigued and seduced by you?
Your Neapolitan novels focus on the lives of two girls, Lenu, our narrator, and her brilliant friend, Lila. Both grow up poor in Naples, Italy during the aftermath of WWII. The books follow the pair’s divergent paths to adulthood; one becomes upwardly mobile through education and the other struggles for autonomy and a better life in their poor neighborhood. The book is just as much about the shifting political, economic, and cultural forces at play in Italy during this period. These potentially intimidating themes are brought back to earth by delivering them through the lives and experiences of the two extraordinary characters and their evolving relationship.
Your work is enormous in its scope and deeply layered, while still managing to be relatable. The Neapolitan Novels are about the nuances of friendship and intimacy between women as much as they’re about the epic struggle for autonomy and agency in a deeply unequal and shifting society. You have written a book that is unsentimental yet has a great, bursting heart, a series that explores the light and dark of friendship and the machinations of power. You capture the intense interior experiences of living in a society that works to confine you, and you also beautifully articulate the divine rage and rebellion which seethes within those subject to these oppressive experiences. You have written a ‘serious’ piece of literature with cover art that is unapologetically feminine.
Elena Ferrante, I love you because your work is transcendent. You defy definition and you irreverently rebel against attempts to categorize your writing. You gave me a new understanding of what art can be.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
There’s a good chance you’ve already received recommendations for Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet from gushy friends, fervent booksellers and rhapsodic librarians. So no more excuses: Read it now, because chances are, you’ll love every soapy Italian moment. Plus, Ferrante is handling the screenplay for HBO’s forthcoming adaptation, so your Neapolitan infatuation may continue indefinitely.
Elena Ferrante – The Neapolitan Novels
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, not a real name. And that mystery brings up a lot of emotional discussions about the real person behind it and the nature of the books. Some think it’s an autobiography, some even argue that the writer is male, which I find hard to believe having read her books. But everybody agrees that once you start reading her Neapolitan Novels, it’s impossible to break away.
The beginning of the first book disappointed me as it is written in kind of a crude childish manner. The story is set in a poor and run-down neighbourhood of Naples, full of violence. Two friends, the schoolgirls Elena Greko and Lila Cerullo, dream, read books and plan their way out of this little and limited community, they were born into.
The protagonist, Elena Greko, annoyed me all the way to the middle of the first book. She didn’t have any self-esteem, didn’t defend her personal borders, her best friend Lila manipulated her every way possible. But the style of storytelling changed as the heroines grew up and their view of the world developed. The deep voice and the great narration of Hilary Huber, reading the text of English translation of the novel, also dragged me in.
Only much later, when I read about the earthquake in Naples I realised why so many things in this book attracted me and pushed me away the same time. I saw the scenes of the earthquake for real – the crowds of people, the destruction, the overall life put to halt for a long time – I saw it all in Armenia when I was a little child. This whole environment in the book reminded me the small town in Armenia where I spent the first years of my childhood. I was lucky in a way. Having been born to an academic family, I didn’t have to fight for the right to get an education as Elena did. But a lot of the attributes of the environment seemed familiar either from my own memories or from stories told by my parents and relatives.
So the days passed, and I couldn’t get myself away from the audiobooks, listening every moment in the car, every second when my little one was asleep or played on his own on the playground. 4 books, almost 70 hours of audio, I fully immersed in the world of Elena and I realised, why it attracted so many readers. It shows naked feelings, feelings that hurt deeply and keep alive. The heroine has an amazing understanding of those feelings, her own and other people’s. She doubts herself all the time, but at the same time, she is brave enough to write about corruption and crime without having a second thought about the criminals who can recognise themselves in her writing. I am sure, this book could be an excellent subject for a dissertation on shame and vulnerability if Brene Brown got to it. But I am also sure that it’s a book that you couldn’t stay indifferent to. You either love it or hate it.