Elena Ferrante is everywhere now. Yet, I remember when she was obscure, when she wrote dark, suffocating first person narratives about women coming undone. She laboriously outlines, emotion by emotion, the protagonist’s shunning of a traditional female role, whether it is wife or mother or both, in favor of her own desires. In Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter, we are stuck in the protagonist’s mind while she struggles to reckon with her own betrayal of tradition and patriarchy. I felt these intense novels were mine from the beginning – sordid, angry and unknown. Then came My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, and the literati was roused from their stateside slumber to take notice of a book about an Italian female friendship between two girls Elena and Lila.
After My Brilliant Friend, came The Story of a New Name which solidified Ferrante’s status as an international writer and the first time she was recognized by the Best Translated Book Award (2014). This year, Ferrante and Ann Goldstein, her faithful translator with whom she has been paired with for all seven of her works, make the list again for Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. It opens with Elena in her mid-sixties, walking with Lila, when a boy finds a body in the bushes that Lila identifies as their childhood friend, Gigliola. From there Ferrante takes us back in time to the 1960s and the long 1970s of Italy, to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Naples, the middle-class restaurants and homes of Florence and the university classrooms where Marxist rhetoric echoes through the halls, giving hope to the students and the local workers that change will come.
Things have changed for both Elena and Lila. Lila is no longer under the thumb of Stefano Carracci, but living in a rundown apartment with a boy she grew up with, Enzo Scanno, and working at a sausage factory. Elena has graduated from university, published a well-received novel and is fiancée to a young professor from Florence. When Elena returns to Naples from Pisa, she comments on the city and it’s deterioration:
"Lodged in my memory were dark streets full of dangers, unregulated traffic, broken pavements, giant puddles. The clogged sewers splattered, dribbled over. Lavas of water and sewage and garbage and bacteria spilled into the sea from the hills that were burdened with new, fragile structures, or eroded the world from below. People died of carelessness, of corruption, of abuse, and yet, in every round of voting, gave their enthusiastic approval to the politicians who made their life unbearable. As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am on of yours, don’t hurt me."
Elena views Lila as an extension of the city and when she first encounters her after a long while, she notes that Lila is “even thinner, even paler, her eyes were red, the sides of her nose were cracked, her long hands were scarred by cuts.” Lila is her touchstone but also her constant reminder of where she came from and that no matter the education or distance, she can never escape it. The control of the Camorra, the violence, the dialect and the oppression of women follow Elena to Florence no matter how much she tries to distance herself and her family from her neighborhood. Her bond with Lila drags her back into the fray, through pleas from Lila but also through Elena’s own necessity to measure up to her, to gain her approval. Yes, this friendship is symbiosis at its most brutal, honest, humiliating and twisted.
What Ferrante, and in turn Goldstein, both do so deftly is ensconce you into the narrative voice and the pace of the novel from the beginning. Even if one hasn’t read the first two of the series, the emotional investment is set forth on page one and instead of feeling that you have missed something, at book’s end the only urge will be to run out to buy the first two. Each page adds layer upon layer so that the friendship between Elena and Lila becomes inextricable from the Godfatheresque battle between the communists and the fascists for control, the struggle between Elena’s role as wife and mother versus that of writer, the role of patriarchy in defining everything that women are or have been, and the ubiquity of violence in their neighborhood and how it even manifests itself through the dialect.
Through all of this, Lila remains the intelligent dropout who is detached and hard, relying on Elena for vicarious success. Elena lives as if she were living partly for Lila, thinking always of Lila’s reaction, of her approval or rejection. Their fidelity to one another feeds itself off their competition and it isn’t till Elena’s husband, Pietro, finally meets Lila and explains to Elena her relationship with Lila:
Pietro shook his head energetically, he explained, surprisingly, that Lila had seemed to him the worst person. He said that she wasn’t at all my friend, that she hated me, that she was extraordinarily intelligent, that she was very fascinating, but her intelligence had been put to bad use—it was the evil intelligence that sows discord and hates life—and her fascination was the more intolerable, the fascination that enslaves and drives a person to ruin.
Yet if Elena didn’t have Lila, she wouldn’t have tried to become what Lila couldn’t.
As with her other novels, Ferrante’s writing does make this seem effortless. It wouldn’t seem that way if weren’t for Goldstein’s translation. Speaking of symbiotic, Goldstein has such a feel for rhythm of Ferrante’s prose that we don’t miss a beat in her cadence. Goldstein also recognizes the directness of Ferrante’s style without becoming melodramatic or heavy-handed. Although the is brutality in the dialect, nothing ever stops or stultifies you because Goldstein has which notes she can strike that will keep the narrative harmonious. Ferrante is lucky to have the loyalty of Goldstein!
Besides all the accolades given to her writing, her skill and her consistency, the media still can’t quite believe in her existence. Ferrante is reclusive. Yet because she doesn’t show herself in public and because she can write violent scenes, some have actually contended that she is a man. What woman could possibly write of violence and brutality so openly? There is nothing that makes me angrier than when mostly male critics doubting the art of a woman. If Mailer was allowed to write sex scenes than Ferrante can write violence. Putting the obvious reasons of craft and success aside of both writer and translator, what other author in the longlist has been accused of being a man because she writes so well?