In Other Words The Neapoli­tan Nov­els by Elena Fer­rante

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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

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