Elena Ferrante is one of the great novelists of our time. Her voice is passionate, her view sweeping and her gaze basilisk. Her subject is the domestic world, and part of her genius lies in her capacity to turn this sphere into an infernal region, full of rage and violence, unlimited in its intellectual and emotional reach. Ferrante’s view of family life is anything but sentimental, anything but comforting.
In fact, her writing is remarkable for its velocity and ruthlessness. Reading her is like getting into a fast car with Tony Soprano: At once you are caught up and silenced, rendered breathless, respectful.
Ferrante is the author of six novels. Her most recently translated, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” is the third in a Neapolitan series that began with “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Story of a New Name.” The books (impeccably translated by Ann Goldstein) track the lives of two women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, born in Naples near the end of World War II. Their neighborhood, bone-scrape poor, is deeply and permanently infested by the verminous, lethal presence of the Camorra. These novels reveal the intersection of poverty and crime, and their effects on the lives of women. Narrated by Elena, now in her 60s, the series begins with the disappearance of Lila and goes on to recapitulate a lost history — one that Lila has tried to erase through vanishing, but that Elena stubbornly records.
The two girls are schoolmates and close friends, though their friendship is complicated. They’re both poor and intelligent, but Elena is a good girl, dutiful and responsible, Lila a bad one, bold and transgressive. Elena does well in the world, but Lila, not allowed to finish school, charts a path of dangerous defiance. The two women are counterparts, twinned and competitive, mirroring, challenging and absorbing each other’s choices, each living a life that might have been the other’s.
It all starts innocently — little girls playing with dolls — but nothing is innocent here. Lila and Elena drop each other’s dolls into a black cellar, where they vanish. Lila declares that Don Achille, the local Camorra chief, has taken them and insists on visiting him to ask for them back. Don Achille is a real criminal, and their meeting is neither funny nor charming.
The shock of Ferrante’s writing lies in troubling juxtapositions like this. Children are our private, most intimate and vulnerable selves; they should never meet criminals, those impersonal, brutal and destructive forces. In Ferrante’s series this disturbing conjunction is continual: Crime affects every life, at every level.
Ferrante’s Naples is in thrall to the Camorra, which determines the girls’ behavior toward their classmates (sucking up to Camorra kids), the jobs their boyfriends are allowed (maybe working as an attendant at a gas station on the stradone) and what the girls wear when they come back from a honeymoon (big sunglasses and voluminous scarves, to hide black eyes and bruises). In “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” Lila has married a rich young Camorra lord, had a child and separated from her husband. She’s poor again, working at a nightmarish factory job. During the day, she leaves her son with the neighbors, watching him sink into the morass of ignorance and brutality.
Elena has finished her studies at the university, written a critically successful book and become engaged to an academic. She has joined the intelligentsia and is about to marry into the middle class, yet her life is still rife with limitations. Her distinguished husband is narrow-minded and restrictive, and she finds motherhood numbing. During the struggles of the 1970s between the Communists and the Socialists she turns to politics, only to find that the Camorra rules here too. The violent demonstrations are controlled by thugs.
Ferrante’s writing style is simple and straightforward, headlong almost to the point of clumsiness. Consider this passage about Gigliola, a neighborhood girl who is about to marry Michele, a Camorra lord. Standing in her new apartment, she describes her plight to Elena:
“Michele, she said, is never here, it’s as if I were getting married by myself. And she suddenly asked me, as if she really wanted an opinion: Do you think I exist? Look at me, in your view do I exist? She hit her full breasts with her open hand, but she did it as if to demonstrate physically that the hand went right through her, that her body, because of Michele, wasn’t there. He had taken everything of her, immediately, when she was almost a child. He had consumed her, crumpled her, and now that she was 25 he was used to her, he didn’t even look at her anymore.” He has sex “here and there as he likes. . . . In front of everyone he treats me like a rag for wiping the floor.” The novel’s pace is breakneck, packed with incident. The scenes are lit by emotion, as if struck by lightning.
Ferrante herself is reclusive. (Google Images, asked for Ferrante, helpfully offers photographs of Meg Wolitzer and Elizabeth Strout.) Oddly, rumors claim that these books have actually been written by a man — perhaps because Ferrante’s narrative is so troubling, not what we expect from a woman. Though haven’t we learned anything from Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates?
There are many ways to examine crime. The Camorra and the Mafia have long held a sinister and glamorous fascination. The Sopranos, with their vulgar, expensive suburban house and mostly ordinary family life, present a skewed version of the American dream, suggesting that the Mafia is simply an alternative form of authority. Ferrante reminds us that crime corrodes, that violence and dishonesty have a deep and permanent impact on society. She shows how they destroy the family, that most essential social unit; how the Camorra undermines the father’s authority, the mother’s love, the children’s futures.
In these bold, gorgeous, relentless novels, Ferrante traces the deep connections between the political and the domestic. This is a new version of the way we live now — one we need, one told brilliantly, by a woman.