Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Epic Continues
By Abigail Pollak
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: Dante's famous admonition at the portals to the Inferno might serve as an epitaph for Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, all three of which take place in postwar Naples, in a poor and violent working-class quarter where "people died of carelessness, of corruption, of abuse." Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the latest volume in her projected series, each of which begins with a mystery and a revelation.
In the first, My Brilliant Friend, Elena Greco's confidante and rival, Lila Cerullo, has suddenly disappeared. Reaching back sixty years to their childhood in the 1950s, Elena tries to find her by tracking the stormy history of their girlhood. In the sequel, The Story of a New Name, the girls, now in their late teens, are both budding writers, frantic to escape the cycles of male brutality and rage that rule their lives. Inextricably twinned since childhood, the girls are mirrors of each other, turning Elena's struggle for freedom, and for the restoration of their early intimacy, into a descent through the shadowy and dangerous realms of self-discovery.
Book Three opens in 2005, the last time Elena will see Lila. Strolling the stradone of their old neighborhood, which has been ravaged by gang warfare, by bloody battles between families of lifelong enemies, and by the Camorra, a Mafia-like crime syndicate headquartered in Naples, they come upon, sprawled in a flowerbed, the dead body of a once-beautiful woman they knew. Angry, vindictive, and defiant, Lila has fled her rich abusive husband, a Camorra lord, and is now working in a sausage factory, "eight hours a day and up to her knees in mortadella water."
Elena, however, appears to have broken free. Alienated from her family, she has graduated from university, is about to marry a middle-class academic, and has written a best-selling novel, albeit cribbed from one of Lila's childhood stories. Though dismissed by her Florentine Marxist friends as frivolous and bourgeois, it is a moving exploration of female sexuality and a searing indictment of Neapolitan patriarchy. Still, no matter how impressive her success, she feels like an imposter, "the daughter of the porter with the dialect cadence of the South ... who is only playing the part of the cultured writer."
Ferrante's Naples, Dantesque in its scope and detail, and in its suffering, is right up there with Balzac's Paris, Musil's Vienna, Lessing's London, and Joyce's Dublin. While it brilliantly documents an absence (Lila's), it is also a portrait of a chaotic and venomous city, and a testament to Elena's recovery. By writing the painful details of their friendship, their fierce attachment and equally fierce enmity threatens to destroy them both, but Elena Greco's novel, like Elena Ferrante's, gives voice to "what once seemed unsayable ... what we [did] not speak to ourselves."
Ferrante has everywhere garnered rave reviews; they are beyond deserved. We eagerly await her fourth volume.