A Counter-Melody: Elena Ferrante’s brilliant, riveting novels about female friendship
By Pasha Malla
Each of Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels” begins with a revelation. In the first, My Brilliant Friend, narrator Elena Greco learns that her lifelong companion, rival, and confidante, Rafaella “Lila” Cerullo, has disappeared. The story then plunges back 60 years to trace the beginnings of their relationship. In the sequel, The Story of a New Name, Lila entrusts Elena with a box containing her private journals—which Elena, at that point a budding writer in her late teens, mines for stories before throwing them off a bridge.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third of a set that will likely comprise four volumes, opens in 2005, the last time Elena sees Lila before her disappearance. The two women are out walking the stradone of their old neighborhood when they discover, sprawled in a flowerbed, the corpse of someone they once knew. Lila laments the dead woman’s “pretensions, her betrayals,” while Elena’s thoughts wander to the fates of others who have remained in Naples:
“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.”
For Elena, Naples is mired in constant violence, with women too often its victims. Even the local dialect is a kind of hyper-masculine grotesque: “The coarse language of the environment we came from was useful for attack or self-defense, but, precisely because it was the language of violence, it hindered, rather than encouraging, intimate confidences.” And so Elena writes, both to establish some commensurate language for her own experiences, and to recapture the intimacy her upbringing has stolen.
What she writes are the novels we are reading, which now span some 1,200 pages. The story isn’t quite a confessional, but it does feel as though it’s been told out of necessity, with an almost desperate urgency that propels one episode to the next. It is so deeply intimate that one is tempted to conflate Elena Greco with Elena Ferrante, the pen name of someone who, like Elena Greco, grew up in Naples. Ferrante’s true identity is a mystery, though some biographical details have emerged in letters and interviews, published collectively as Fragments. Perhaps because of the freedom afforded by anonymity, Ferrante’s work feels intensely personal—written, as the reclusive author believes all fiction should be, “as if your innermost self had been ransacked.” In Ann Goldstein’s English translations, Ferrante’s sentences have an incantatory power, as well as profound psychological and cultural insights. “The true reader,” Ferrante claims, “searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood … but the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.”
Ferrante’s sentences have an incantatory power, as well as profound psychological and cultural insights.
And yet, in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the work of the novelist—especially l’écriture féminine—is dismissed as frivolous and bourgeois, at least compared to the activism and agitation of 1970s Italy. “In those circles that were so caught up and sucked in by political passions,” Elena claims, “my [first] book was considered an insignificant little thing.” But, gradually, she also discovers that writing the female body—the flesh made word—fosters its own form of resistance, especially when it challenges the patriarchy and provincialism of Naples.
Having fled “that place of disorder and danger,” first to Pisa, then Florence, by her late 20s Elena has established herself nationally as an important literary figure, a respected intellectual, a political pundit. And yet: “Upon every return to my own city, I feared that some unexpected event would keep me from escaping, that the things I had gained would be taken from me.” Naples is not all that haunts and threatens her: Lila, who has stayed, exerts a similar hold. “Her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.”
In many ways the friends are each other’s opposites. Lila is forthright, daring, a believer in absolutes; Elena is timid, pensive, and ambivalent. But together they form a “counter-melody” that links them inextricably. The two women recall Michel de Montaigne’s idea that true friends “mix and blend one into the other [in] so perfect a union that the seam which has joined them is effaced and disappears.” Montaigne was speaking sentimentally, though: There is no pure harmony here. Their fierce attachment—and equally fierce enmity—courses through the novels, even when, in adulthood, their relationship turns as parasitic as it was once symbiotic: Elena cribs her first book from a story Lila wrote as a child, and Lila’s jealousy descends into outright abuse.
In The Story of a New Name their rivalry turns romantic when Lila begins an affair with Nino, the man Elena has loved since primary school. In this volume, Elena takes him back—a rare moment of action from someone who functions mainly as Lila’s documentarian. (Lila “moves people like characters in a story,” and Elena imagines her saying, “You wanted to write novels, I created a novel with real people, with real blood, in reality.”) Even as adults, their connection is most dynamic when they are creating stories together. On the telephone one night, Elena is revitalized when the two friends reconstruct an old neighborhood murder: “As in one of our childhood games, when it seemed to us that we were in all ways complementary, I followed her step by step, adding my voice excitedly to hers, and I had the impression that together—the girls of the past and the adults of now—we were arriving at a truth that for two decades had been unspeakable.”
Given how utterly Elena depends on her friend, when Lila disappears it seems not only an attempt to “eliminate the entire life that she had left behind,” but a threat to Elena’s existence. These novels, then, become not only documents of witness or recovery but also a means of beating Lila at her own game. “We’ll see who wins this time,” Elena gloats. “I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”
In most of her books, Ferrante strives to write the female body—especially its devastation and destruction. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay doesn’t exactly abandon those concerns, but the focus turns from physicality to absence. Elena speaks of her literary ambitions as documenting “what seems unsayable and what we do not speak to ourselves”—essentially what she has failed to say to her closest friend and can only type now that she’s gone. The title suggests absolutes—Those Who Leave (Elena) and Those Who Stay (Lila)—but the subtitle, “Middle Time,” hints at something else. Like its narrator, the novel is less interested in obvious binaries—of language (Neapolitan/Italian), social geography (South/North), ideology (communist/fascist), gender, faith, and class—than in the mucky territory between.
The novel becomes a synthesis of these antipathies, a world, as Elena describes it, of “dissolving boundaries.” She never fully identifies with Naples and its brutality, yet she remains an impostor among refined Northerners, “the daughter of the porter with the dialect cadence of the South,” who is only “playing the part of the cultured writer.” She marries into a respected academic family, has children, publishes a book, and none of these roles—wife, mother, even author—seems to fit her. Only later does she realize what she was chasing in her “middle time,” and why: “I had wanted to become something … only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”
And so we have the book in our hands, this bildungsroman of that becoming, which finally discards its muse to explore the world beyond. At one point, Elena, who has been struggling to finish a second novel after the success of her first, shares a draft of a work-in-progress with Lila. Her friend is reluctant, then vindictive, saying “it’s an ugly, ugly book and the one before it was, too.” Elena is devastated. She fears that not only is her literary career finished, but their relationship might be ruined, too. She turns her thinking inward, and then, recognizing that she has suffered through two relationships that were, in essence, plays of male power, begins an essay about the ways that men have depicted women in literature, from the Bible through Flaubert. A draft is well received by her editors; it will be published—and, free from Lila’s influence, Elena falls in love. She seems to be entering some new chapter in her life, in which, at last, she will tell only of herself.