Much has been made — and more will be made — about the true identity of the pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, a media-shy writer who has given a handful of interviews over the years but no public readings. There are no promotional photographs of Ferrante. Is Elena Ferrante the nom de plume of another, more famous novelist? Is Ferrante a filmmaker or a sculptor? Is Ferrante a man?
These questions, although intriguing, are beside the point. The point is that Ferrante is one of the finest novelists working today, even if she is a man, which seems doubtful. The more interesting mysteries are to be found in her novels, especially her addictive Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and, now, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. These serial novels are narrated by Elena Greco, in her mid-60s, in 2010, and they consist of recollections of her past, growing up impoverished in Naples, Italy, in the 1950s and 1960s, and of her indelible friendship with Lila Cerrullo, whose disappearance leads her to write these memoirs.
Elena and Lila are inextricably linked throughout their girlhoods. Both are gifted students, but where Elena is eager to please, Lila is rebellious. They both want to write a book like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, but Lila is the first to pen a story, The Blue Fairy, which she will later burn. As a consequence of Lila’s prodigious gifts, however, Elena feels subjacent, leading her to develop a need to feel “superior.” “As soon as I could,” Elena writes in My Brilliant Friend, “I found a way to remind her that I had gotten a better report card … To not be second, to outdo her, for the first time seemed to me a success.”
While Elena’s literary tastes (and skills) develop, Lila manifests a desire to make money, hatching a plan to design shoes with her brother Rino. Despite their different paths, Elena wants Lila to recognize her “indispensability”: “I wanted her to realize that I was special, and that, even if she became rich making shoes with Rino, she couldn’t do without me, as I couldn’t do without her.”
For her part, Lila, although evasive, is fiercely protective of Elena. When the Solara brothers, Marcello and Michele, the neighbourhood toughs, pull up alongside the girls in their Fiat 1100, Marcello gets out and grabs Elena’s wrist, breaking her mother’s bracelet and, in an instant, “Lila, half the size of him, pushed him against the car and whipped the shoemaker’s knife under his throat.”
Lila calmly threatens Marcello in dialect: “Touch her again and I’ll show you what happens.” Lila’s act of bravery establishes her as someone to be feared in the neighbourhood, unflinching and unpredictable.
Fearless, pubescent Lila has a strong power over men. She also makes brilliant observations. One afternoon, for example, she says to Elena, “Where there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.” This is an observation that Elena later borrows when writing an essay for which she will receive much praise.
Gore Vidal famously quipped, “It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.” But the competition between Elena and Lila is different. It is far more complicated and subtle; it is not necessarily about the other one losing, since when one suffers, they both suffer: “Didn’t we excite each other in turn,” Elena wonders, “didn’t my passion grow in the warmth of hers?”
Lila, for Elena, functions as a sort of semi-demonic muse. And Lila knows this, which is why she warns Elena, at the beginning of Those Who Leave, in the winter of 2005, never to write about her. “I’ll come look in your computer, I’ll read your files, I’ll erase them,” she tells Elena, and when Elena insists that she can protect herself, Lila answers, “Not from me.”
For the majority of the first two volumes, Elena’s narration is focused primarily on Lila — her violent life at home, the shoes she designs, her marriage to the wealthy grocer Stefano, etc. But by the end of The Story of a New Name, the narrative focus shifts to Elena and her burgeoning career as a writer. Like the major cycles in Proust’s multi-volume In Search of Lost Time (Swann’s cycle, the Guermantes’ cycle, etc.), Elena’s cycle begins with the conclusion of The Story of a New Name.
At this point, Elena leaves the neighbourhood to study in Pisa on a scholarship, and she later has her first novel accepted for publication. The Neapolitan novels constitute a Künstlerroman — detailing Elena’s progress as an artist — as much as they do a national allegory, representing generations of Neapolitans (or Italians, Europeans or, perhaps, humans), as Elena comes to realize, when she returns to the neighbourhood at the beginning of Those Who Leave:
“I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.”
Ferrante’s characters often hide the true state of things from themselves so as to protect their narcissism, whatever the cost. And the cost is steep.
Those Who Leave opens with a dead body, and from there the bodies pile up. Violence is so commonplace in their neighbourhood that it feels like it is at stake in every interaction.
Elena rarely returns to the neighbourhood, where Lila stays, and she begins her life, in Those Who Leave, with her husband Pietro, a professor, in 1970s Florence. Elena’s novel has come out to mostly good reviews, but people in the old neighbourhood seem interested only in “the dirty parts.” Elena’s success as a novelist is brief, however, and she settles into married life, becoming a mother to two girls, though she soon finds marriage suffocating. The violence in the streets escalates, with student protests and constant clashes between Communists and Fascists. Elena becomes a student of modern feminist thought, which animates her life and writing.
The narrative crux, however, is still Elena and Lila’s wondrous and terrifying friendship. No matter how hard Elena attempts to subdue Lila’s influence, Lila’s presence insists, exploding back onto the scene like the copper pot that explodes when she is in the room, or the wedding portrait of her that spontaneously combusts. The repressed returns, and with spectacular results.
It is difficult to find a more beautiful evocation of a lifelong friendship than the one found in the pages of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Book Four is anxiously anticipated, the supposed finale to the series.
After reading Those Who Leave, it is nearly impossible not to be far more interested in finding out what will to happen to Elena, Lila, Pietro, Stefano, Rino, Marcello, and Michele than it is finding out whether Ferrante is a sculptor, rodeo clown or, even, a man.