Elena Ferrante’s magnificent “Neopolitan novels” trace the relationship between two headstrong Italian women, from their schooldays in the 1950s to the present day. In the first volume, the narrator – who shares the author’s first name – documents how her “brilliant friend” Lila left school to marry a local mafioso while she went on to university; in the second book, Elena becomes a successful novelist while Lila leaves her abusive husband and takes a job at a sausage factory.
This, the third entry in the series, picks up the story in the late-1960s and 1970s. Elena marries a wealthy young scholar and moves to Florence to raise a family, while Lila becomes involved in leftist politics in Naples. They stay in touch, but their relationship is now tinged with envy. Elena finds herself unhappy: her husband is cold, her children difficult. While Lila lives in relative poverty, she seems to Elena to enjoy “absolute freedom”, to wield increasing power as she prosecutes “her wretched neighborhood wars”. Elena comes to feel restless for her own independence.
Although Ferrante is notoriously reclusive, her books appear deeply personal. The passages here concerning sex and motherhood are told with such acuteness – there is almost a surfeit of detail – that the reader feels as if eavesdropping on a confession meant for someone else’s ears.
But these books are more than autobiography by other means. They also look outward, offering a dissection of Italian society that is almost Tolstoyan in its sweep and ambition. They are, into the bargain, extraordinarily gripping entertainment; the plot in this latest installment twists and turns, like a Naples alleyway, towards a sequel-enabling conclusion. Novel by novel, Ferrante’s series is building into one of the great achievements of modern literature.