Over the last 18 months, two writers whose autobiographical series of novels are gradually being translated into English have caught the literary world’s attention: the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Italian Elena Ferrante.
Of the two, Ferrante remains the more enigmatic. The author is in her sixties, and from Naples. Her actual identity is unconfirmed and no verifiable photograph exists: an almost impossible achievement in our confessional age. Of her disturbing, excoriating novels, this is the sixth, and third in her series about the lifelong relationship between two girls, Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, who grow up together in the slums of post-war Naples.
Elena is the narrator, compelled to set down their story following Lila’s sudden disappearance in 2006. Each novel references this aberration, while detailing different stages of the women’s lives. In My Brilliant Friend the more academic, fearless Lila, an object of endless fascination in their neighbourhood, is barred by her parents from continuing her education; instead, at 16, she marries into glamour and money.
The Story of a New Name witnesses the abuses of that union, and its subsequent breakdown. Elena graduates from university, becomes engaged to the scion of prominent intellectuals and, under her future mother-in-law’s tutelage, writes her first, heavily autobiographical novel.
Ferrante’s style is deliberately combative. Lila and Elena’s anger and frustration at their upbringing and limited options as working-class women in a male, church-dominated society is powerfully, explicitly expressed. Communication is visceral: the shifts in between the Neapolitan dialect of their youth and the “precious” acquisition of Italian, the language of the cultivated middle class, mirrors the women’s experiences.
The backdrop is no less convulsive: at the time of this third book, covering the period 1968-1976, Europe’s idealism and revolutionary mantras are leaning towards fanaticism: these are the years of the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Red Brigades. As Elena observes: “Every choice has its history, so many moments of our existence are shoved into a corner, waiting for an outlet, and in the end that outlet arrives.”
Living in relative affluence in Florence with her new husband and two daughters, Elena is on the fringes of Italy’s social unrest, her life seemingly lived on her own terms. Yet it is Lila, working in a sausage factory, raising a son virtually single-handedly, who even in material poverty is the one without compromise. Elena has writer’s block and a sense of futility; she is trapped in a marriage and increasingly aware of the feminist movement. She obsessively compares herself with Lila: “My becoming was a becoming in her wake.” She is accused of inertia by Nino, a character from her and Lila’s past, whose absence is “a black smoke of pain”. He emphasises that “this, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels”. Lila, meanwhile, becomes responsible for exposing corruption at the factory; in another twist she manipulates an uneasy alliance with a former enemy.
Ferrante’s singularity is to make a glory of introspection and turn it into theatre. There’s a dark ardour present in her writing, and a thrilling physicality to her metaphors, boldly translated by Ann Goldstein. She speaks of “the anxious pleasure of violence”, of desire feeling “like a drop of rain in a spiderweb”. Her charting of the rivalries and sheer inscrutability of female friendship is raw. This is high-stakes, subversive literature.