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CityLab: "The city itself is a character in all her novels, including the popular four-book series that begins with My Brilliant Friend, about best friends growing up in the 1950s, and ends with The Story of the Lost Child, released in English this week."

Date: Sep 2 2015

We don't know who the Italian author Elena Ferrante is—she writes under a pseudonym—but we do know that she is from Naples. The city itself is a character in all her novels, including the popular four-book series that begins with My Brilliant Friend, about best friends growing up in the 1950s, and ends with The Story of the Lost Child, released in English this week.

I was born and raised in Naples, just like Elena Greco, the narrator of the four novels. And like her, I left the city soon after finishing high school.

When I read the books, I recognized the geographical and emotional landscape of the city through Ferrante’s vivid descriptions.

How real is the Naples that appears in these books? And how has growing up there changed over the years?

Geography and class

Lila said that in the direction of Vesuvius was the sea. Rino, who had been there, had told her that the water was blue and sparkling, a marvelous sight. (My Brilliant Friend)

The city of the books matches closely to the real Naples, in fact. Elena grows up in a working-class neighborhood she refers to as rione. In reality, the area is called Rione Luzzatti. It’s easily identifiable from the geographical references in the books.

The buildings in the “old neighborhood” were built as social (or public) housing between the world wars. The “new neighborhood” probably consists of newer buildings nearby. The frequently mentioned stradone (main road) is likely the Via Taddeo da Sessa.

Though Naples is a port city, Elena and her friend Lila, as 10-year-olds, have never been to the sea. They hear from Lila’s older brother, Rino, that the sea is not too far away.

One day they skip school and walk through the tunnel that divides them from the city, and walk for hours, until it starts raining, Lila becomes afraid, and they turn back. That tunnel is the underpass of Via Emanuele Gianturco, a major road.

The area changes over time. Elena refers to the building of the new central station, just a few blocks from the neighborhood. She also describes the ponds where she has romantic encounters with her boyfriend Antonio. The real ponds slowly disappeared as the neighborhood expanded. They are now an area of skyscrapers known as Centro Direzionale.

The ponds described in Ferrante’s books have been replaced by skyscrapers.

Growing up, I associated Rione Luzzatti with crime. It is one of the areas where policemen have little power, because it is controlled by the camorra (Naples mafia). Although it is located between the central station and the modern area full of skyscrapers, I didn’t go there because it was said to be dangerous.

In My Brilliant Friend, teenage Elena visits Via Chiaia, in a wealthy area, and her friends get into a fight with a guy who calls them “hicks.” Elena senses that people here speak and dress very differently from her. When she moves back to Naples in her 30s, in the fourth book, she finds an apartment on Via Torquato Tasso, a road that winds up to the Vomero hill and boasts beautiful villas and a magnificent view of the sea.

Via Tasso is where the upper class of Naples lives. It is a part of the city that Elena rarely had access to during her childhood and adolescence—an alien world, across an invisible border.

Housing

Elena’s neighborhood is made up of apartment buildings. Elena shares one room with her siblings and has to put a mattress on the floor every night and pack it away in the morning.

It was not uncommon for lower-class families to live in such cramped spaces in the 1950s—and this still happens today. Naples is known for its bassi. These are one-room, street-level, windowless apartments, where often an entire extended family lives.

During summer, the entrance door is left open and the family moves tables and chairs out on the sidewalk to eat and hang out. Bassi are usually in small alleyways, at the bottom of large, imposing buildings.

Education

“If you pay me I’ll take care of sending her to school,” Rino said. “School? Why, did I go to school?”
“No.”
“Did you go to school?”
“No.”
“Then why should your sister, who is a girl, go to school?” (My Brilliant Friend)

After primary school, Lila drops out because her parents need her to help at home. In 1950s Italy, school was compulsory until the age of 14, but only two children out of 10 actually made it to middle school. (In Naples, that number may have been even lower.) It was more common for boys to continue studying than girls, who married young, like Lila, and had children.

Elena’s primary-school teacher, Maestra Oliviero, convinces Elena’s parents to let her continue her education. She attends a classical high school—clearly recognizable as the Liceo Classico Garibaldi—where she studies Italian, history, Latin, Greek and philosophy.

In 1950s Italy, school was compulsory until the age of 14, but only two children out of 10 actually made it to middle school.

Schooling eventually became required until 16, but it was still common for children to leave behind their studies to go to work. Even in the 1980s, illiteracy and drop-out rates in Naples remained high.

My mother taught night courses for those who had left school early. I remember many anecdotes of factory workers who learned to sign their names thanks to her.

Public schools, like the one Elena attended, are still places where social differences are confronted. For example, I went to school with the son of a truck driver and the daughter of a wealthy jeweler. I came from a privileged background but I knew that Naples was a very diverse city.

Now, according to official statistics, 93 percent of Italian children attend secondary school, and there are more female than male graduates at universities.

*****

Naples is the third largest city in Italy, after Rome and Milan, but in many ways it feels quite small, with less than 1 million people.

In the 1960s and 70s a lot of Neapolitans moved north to look for work. That situation has changed, but only up to a point.

I left Naples for my university studies and never moved back. Most of my high school friends did too, finding opportunity elsewhere: Milan, Rome, London, Brussels, Berlin. We are those who left, not those who stayed, to paraphrase the title of the third book in Ferrante’s series. But we’re still Neapolitans.