“Relationships between women don’t have solid rules like those between men,” says the Italian author Elena Ferrante. “I was interested in recounting how a long friendship between two women could endure and survive in spite of good and bad feelings, dependence and rebellion, mutual support and betrayal.”
It would be difficult to find a deeper portrait of women’s friendship than the one in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which unfold from the fifties to the twenty-first century to tell a single story with the possessive force of an origin myth. Beginning with My Brilliant Friend, published in the U.S. two years ago, they’re ruminatively narrated by a writer named Elena, who looks back upon a defining, lifelong bond with the “terrible, dazzling” Lila, whom she meets in first grade. Together, the girls grow up in a corner of Naples Visconti might have filmed, a neighborhood of pastry bakers and fruit-and-vegetable vendors, vendettas, and casual violence. Slim as a “salted anchovy,” with a quicksilver intelligence, Lila ignites the more compliant Elena’s ambitions: “We tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges.”
But when Elena’s parents send her on to middle school, while Lila’s shoemaker father refuses to pay the fees for her to go, their relationship takes on a jagged complexity. Lila turns to designing shoes and then, as she magnetizes the young men of the neighborhood, to marrying well. As her attempts are each, in turn, squandered, Lila’s pent-up rage punctures the immersive realism of Ferrante’s prose—a copper pot explodes, a wedding portrait bursts into flames. The first novel concludes with a description of her wedding as chilling as it is mesmerizing. In The Story of a New Name, sixteen-year-old Lila has become the Jackie Kennedy of the stradone, impeccably stylish, but with large sunglasses concealing her bruises. Meanwhile, Elena escapes by winning a scholarship to a university in Pisa and publishing her first book—a novel inspired, in part, by a childhood effort of Lila’s.
Out this month, the hugely anticipated third novel in the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Europa), seamlessly translated by Ann Goldstein, is set in the late sixties and seventies; the two girls are now young women, and the Red Brigades and feminism are shaking up the old ways. Jealousies have accumulated like shifting layers of silt, though a fierce attachment remains: Elena, living comfortably in Florence with her professor husband, returns to Naples to come to the aid of Lila, who is swept up in a leftist movement with the fearlessness of one who has little left to lose. But in an elegant reversal Ferrante makes as psychologically sound as it is dramatic, we soon realize that it is Elena who’s in a kind of jeopardy: She’s intellectually stifled, unable to write, and burdened with an easily threatened, Casaubon-like pedant for a husband.
“Writing this novel didn’t take me back; rather, it affirmed the idea that it’s impossible to escape our origins,” says Ferrante, who grew up in Naples in a home with very few books. She was twelve when she started writing fiction (while Ferrante won’t confirm her age, her fictional counterpart would now be in her early 70s). “My desk mate, with whom I had a great friendship, suggested we write a novel together,” she explains. Together, they came up with a story, and the friend wrote the first chapter. Ferrante didn’t like it, and so she wrote the entire story herself, from beginning to end, telling her friend she wasn’t up to the project. “From that moment, the passion to write never left. Yet for me the passion to write never coincided with the desire to become a writer. The passion was by its nature private.”
At sixteen, Ferrante found herself captivated by Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian and, most influentially, Elsa Morante’s House of Liars. “There I discovered what literature can be. That novel multiplied my ambitions, but it also weighed on me, paralyzing me.” It took many years for Ferrante to outgrow the anxiety of influence, but she never stopped writing in secret. She published her first novel, Troubling Love, in Italy in 1991, and is now one of the country’s most acclaimed—and elusive—novelists. “Today, writing, for me, is above all a battle to avoid lying,” she says. “If it seems to me not that I’ve won but that I’ve fought with all my strength, I decide to publish.”
To preserve her expressive freedom, Ferrante, interviewed here via email correspondence, keeps her identity private, a choice that has only added to her mystique. Since 2005, when her scalding breakout novel, Days of Abandonment, landed on American shores, her name, assumed or not, has become like a secret handshake, the audacious humor and devastating candor of her voice—extraordinary not because the (largely feminine) experiences it describes are unusual but precisely because they aren’t—already finding echoes in the work of authors like Claire Messud and Jenny Offill. Her six books available in English speak to any woman who has ever felt haunted by a thwarted mother, been humiliated by a husband or boyfriend, or clung tenuously to a life of the mind while caring for young children. With the Neapolitan novels, the scale of which took the author by surprise, that voice has found its burnish: Ferrante has authored a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman that captures not only the forging of a self but the salvaging of it.
One of this masterwork’s most resonant passages comes late in the third novel, when the fictional Elena, struggling to find her way back on the page, imagines what it would be like if Lila hadn’t been denied an education: “We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other, we would have fought shoulder to shoulder, because what was ours was inimitably ours.” How many women, writing in the dark, have wished for relief from their isolation? When a light source finally does arrive, it’s not in the form of Lila, but a figure from their shared past. To find out what happens next, impatient readers will have to wait for 2015, when the fourth and final Neapolitan novel is due out.
“The most difficult achievement is the capacity to see oneself, to name oneself, to imagine oneself,” says Ferrante. “If in daily life we use ideologies, common sense, religion, even literature itself to disguise our experiences and make them presentable, in fiction it’s possible to sweep away all the veils—in fact, perhaps, it’s a duty.”