Post45: The Story of a New Name: Katherine, July 31: "So far, we've been talking about the Neapolitan novels almost entirely as the story of a friendship...But it's also, significantly, the story of all of these lives, and of the city in which they live."
Date: Jul 31 2015
Dear Sarah, Merve, and Jill,
Already, I've lied to you. I'm not in Forio, I'm back in Princeton, but I began this slow post in Ferranteland, on Ischia, where The Story of a New Name takes its lengthiest and most decisive turn, so Forio, where I spent three nights, is where I've chosen to drop my pin.
Now, in compensation, I'll be honest: I have built my entire summer around Ferrante. Not only am I rereading the Neapolitan novels and little else, not only am I writing about them and little else, I have also made Matt read them, so that he will talk to me about them all the time. We even went to Italy. To see friends who had invited us to northern Lazio, yes. But also to go south, to Campania, to track down the real places of these books. I had to see the Piazza dei Martiri, where the Solaras have their shoe shop. I had to eat pizza and sflogliatelle, the traditional ricotta pastry Gigliola's father makes so well. I definitely had to go to Ischia. I had to try to find the old neighborhood, where everything begins, the one place in the series that is perennially, and conspicuously, unnamed.
Why this obsession with setting? On the one hand, the novels cry out for it, everything about them suggesting autobiography, and through autobiography, history. Surely Elena Ferrante is Elena Greco, both of them born in Naples, both of them novelists, the author a mystery, the character a novelist who draws explicitly from life. And surely that means there's also a real Lila, a real Nino. Certainly, there is a real Corso Vittorio Emanuele, where the Galianis have their house full of books. There is a real Maronti, on Ischia, where Lenú finally succumbs to Donato Sarratore's advances. There is even a real San Giovanni a Teduccio, where Lila lives with Enzo and works with sharp knives and sickening fat in Bruno Soccavo's sausage factory. The novels are completely littered with place names, all of them, with the exception of that sneaky neighborhood, easy to find on a map.
So off we went, first to our B&B, off the Piazza dei Martiri, where "every crucial development in [Lila's] war had occurred" (SNN 345): the fight with the rich boys, the defacement of the wedding photo, the afternoon romance with Nino at the shop. The shop, of course is fictional, but the real piazza, with its central monument to the martyrs of various anti-Bourbon uprisings, is exactly where the elegant Alfonso would want to be. In a city decked with hanging laundry and warring traffic, it's a rare car-free zone, almost Parisian in its upkeep, currently home to Ferragamo, Armani, and a Feltrinelli bookstore prominently displaying L'Amica Geniale.
We went looking for Lenù's high school, too. We knew from MBF that it's off Corso Garibaldi. She commutes by bus, but it we figured it should be possible to walk, as she does the day she follows Nino to Corso Novara, which eventually takes her home. That placed her native neighborhood to the north of the train station, the old one likely Secondiglio, the new one likely Scampia, both of them notorious Camorra districts. Either way, it's an astonishing walk. We peered down the sweltering boulevard, spied an overpass, but no tunnel, debated hailing a cab to take us to a stradone, or even just some apartment block up north, but ultimately chickened out. Naples was so hot in July even our eye sockets were sweating, no wonder everyone flees for the beach.
We joined them, following Nino to Ischia, specifically Forio, where he and Bruno rent their summer place. Islands, we were forced to remember, are crowded, and in July this one was packed. Our room was hot like the Cerullo-Carracci house, so at night, we opened all the windows, risking the disfiguring mosquito bites poor Lenù is so desperate to avoid. At the southwestern beaches, it was easy to imagine Lila swimming. The beach slopes down, the water is powerful and quickly deep, even just a few laps could strengthen the limbs. Maronti, though, surprised us. We thought it might be quiet, but like every other beach on this island, it's now end to end with colorful chairs and umbrellas, €15 per couple per day. Sex here, even at night, would not be a secret affair.
But what, after all, did we expect? This is always what happens in the real places of fiction: there remain elements that don't quite scan. Often there's a gap in time, but just as often, there's a gap in perception. The physical has been translated into words, then translated back to the physical, which looks and feels a little different to every reader, and to every character, too. For us, Maronti is a nice place to read Ferrante and have a meal. For Lenù, it's the site of a cataclysmic betrayal:
I thought: yes, Lila is right, the beauty of things is a trick, the sky is the throne of fear; I'm alive, now, here, ten steps from the water, and it is not at all beautiful, it's terrifying; along with this beach, the sea, the swarm of animal forms, I am part of the universal terror; at this moment I'm the infinitesimal particle through which the fear of every thing becomes conscious of itself; I; I who listen to the sound of the sea, who feel the dampness of the cold sand; I who imagine all Ischia, the entwined bodies of Nino and Lila, Stefano sleeping by himself in the new house that is increasingly not so new, the furies who indulge the happiness of today to feed the violence of tomorrow (SNN 289).
The only way to feel this is to read it. It may help to have seen a beach once in your life, but in the end, it doesn't matter which one.
Still, there's something to be said for literary tourism. We saw, first-hand, how powerful Naples is, a whole world in that sprawling, convulsive, specific city: rich and poor, streets that rise and fall, a volcano that faces the sea. We learned the map a bit, too, and walking it, passing all kinds of people, we found ourselves thinking much more about the giant supporting cast of these books: Gigliola and Michele, Pinuccia and Rino, Ada and Stefano, Carmen and Pasquale, Enzo, Antonio, Alfonso, and Nino, all of whom, sooner or later, will get to have their turn.
So far, we've been talking about the Neapolitan novels almost entirely as the story of a friendship. And it is. But it's also, significantly, the story of all of these lives, and of the city in which they live.