In Other Words The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
by Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, translated by Ann Goldstein: My Brilliant Friend, 331 pages; The Story of a New Name, 471 pages; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, 418 pages; The Story of the Lost Child, 473 pages
If you haven’t read the Neapolitan Novels, consider setting aside some time for them. The four books all but read themselves. They aren’t flawless, but what literature of epic length is? Henry James famously referred to War and Peace as “a large, loose, baggy monster.” Tolstoy also holds court as an armchair general over many a page in that novel. The Neapolitan Novels are not painted on as wide a canvas as War and Peace, but taken together, they constitute a groundbreaking work on female friendship. The depth and precision of psychological insight in these novels are astonishing, and they have an open-endedness that is strikingly similar to life. Ann Goldstein has translated all four novels from the original Italian. Elena Ferrante, incidentally, is a pen name — the author’s identity is unknown.
In My Brilliant Friend, the narrator, Elena, and her friend Lila spend their childhood in a poor neighborhood in Naples, where casual violence (people constantly threaten to smash someone’s face in) permeates daily life. An early episode in which the two girls play with dolls echoes eerily in the last book of the series. The girls throw each other’s dolls down the grate of a dark cellar. The man who they think makes away with their dolls is Don Achille, a feared loan shark and black market operator. When the girls pluck up the courage to go up to Don Achille’s apartment to retrieve their dolls, the scene is electric with tension.
In elementary school, Elena studies hard to keep up with the highly intelligent Lila. But Lila’s shoemaker father has no means to send her even to middle school, so there is no way for her intelligence to flourish in a systematic way. The girls dream together about writing successful novels, but they go on remarkably different trajectories: Lila makes what looks on the surface like a good marriage; Elena gets a college scholarship to Pisa. During her engagement, Lila peruses fashion magazines and dresses up as though she were the Jacqueline Kennedy of the neighborhood. But it turns out that Lila married the young owner of a neighborhood grocery only to escape the rich, corrupt Solara brothers, who will nevertheless loom over her story.
The first book is dramatic, but it feels almost straightforward compared with the second. In The Story of a New Name, the tale is no longer told linearly. The twists and turns in Lila’s life, and her rags-toriches story, now take on harrowing undertones. Her husband’s casual violence reflects what happens in the neighborhood and is a nod to Don Achille, his deceased loan shark father. The story is at once lifelike and melodramatic, mimicking Lila’s somewhat bipolar qualities: Lila is fiercely intelligent, and she is just as fiercely stubborn and self-destructive. “Delete” is her favorite key on the keyboard. When a gorgeous, enlarged wedding photo of hers is put up on a shoe storefront (as a child, Lila designed a pair of shoes), Lila, after some cut and paste, transforms the poster into a minimalist piece of art. Lila is trying to delete her identity, which is why she may never write the masterpiece her friend Elena hopes and fears Lila will one day write.
The two friends seemingly grow apart, but on a summer vacation in Ischia, a childhood acquaintance, Nino, converses endlessly with them, and love lives intersect in a way that will haunt them both.
Throughout the ebbs and flows of their aspirations and relationships, Nino will touch disparate aspects of their lives — at first as a sensitive university student and ultimately as a corrupt politician. In the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, in a surprising reversal, Nino becomes Elena’s muse in the way that Lila had once been.
When Lila’s marriage begins to sour, her mother chides her that she got married too early (in her teens), whereas her mother waited until she was twenty-one. Lila’s husband, Stefano, also understands as much within a handful of years, which are an eternity over which the marriage dissolves. Stefano realizes that when he married, he didn’t know what marriage was.
After the breakup, Lila returns to rags and begins to support her small son by doing brutal work in a meat factory, while Elena achieves literary success. Yet, in Elena’s eyes, it is Lila who shines more brightly. Elena goes to the meat factory to tell Lila that her first novel is going to be published, and still Lila is the one who seems to be truly living: She studies math with Enzo, a childhood friend who has now given her and her son a gentlemanly refuge.
In her twenties, Lila works through a correspondence course with Enzo, and she learns the language of computers. They become experts and start a successful computer business, Basic Sight. Lila has an innate intelligence and the boldness to carry out her ideas. But even Lila is no match for the omnipresent ills of poverty, gender inequality, and corruption. Over the course of the novels, she will go on to triumph over these conditions only to be brought down, yet again, by the casual violence that is a defining characteristic of her neighborhood. There, everyone recognizes that Lila is intelligent, but no one except Enzo nurtures her intelligence without also trying to exploit it, which is what one Solara brother intends to do. Lila rebuffs Michele Solara, then she uses him, and then she rebuffs him again. Is this the central mistake of her life?
The narrative has some familiar elements, but what’s new and exciting is how Ferrante deepens our understanding of friendships. As reported recently in The New York Times, in 1925 Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter to his parents: “You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not just to depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful.” Ferrante gives us the many permutations of a friendship between two women: tender, stimulating, necessary, envious, brutal, and vicious. Elena constantly places herself second to Lila — she fears she is second to Lila — but in fact there can’t be any first or second here. There are no grounds for competition. It is thrilling, at last, to read a novel with two brilliant female protagonists.
In the last book, The Story of the Lost Child, the reader, like the narrator, is in suspense. We don’t know if Lila’s brilliance will have the upper hand or if it will dissipate. Here is a character who went to school only until grade five, yet her native intelligence is such that the entire neighborhood is alternately in awe of her and despises her. Over time, living arrangements change. The two friends begin to live near each other again in their old neighborhood. Still, the deepest questions between them remain unresolved. Lila flits those questions away as though they aren’t important. But Elena earnestly ponders them. Once the two friends played with dolls, and now each has a three-year-old daughter and lends the other a hand.
Sometimes the story gets too self-involved, and Ferrante weakly conflates the problems in Naples with what is happening in cities around the world. The saving grace is the assurance with which Ferrante tells this specific story. Questions about what it means to be a “real person” are raised. Elena’s oldest daughter, Dede, tells her that it is not possible to have a “real” relationship with her because all she cares about is work and her friendship with Lila.
Elena has stuck to her stubborn self-discipline of studying, reading, and publishing, but she fears, until the end, that all her published work, all her books, have only temporal significance. She imagines that Lila is the one who will come out with a book (about Naples? Her daughter? Both?) that generations of people will read. Whether or not Lila ever wrote that book, Ferrante has written four that show all the signs of endurance. — Priyanka Kumar