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Newsletter “Has any fiction in the past ten years had a bigger impact?”

Date: Sep 2 2015

One measure by which Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are a triumph is the devotion they’ve inspired in women across a range of ages and experience. Has any fiction in the past ten years had a bigger impact? The tetralogy features countless opportunities for self-recognition: the ambivalence of the ambitious young student who escapes her provincial origins, only to be resented by those left behind; the jealousy of a young woman competing with a more beautiful and talented friend; the guilt of a wife and mother, torn between obligation and her own heart. Ferrante’s importance ultimately lies not in her masterly plotting, her no-false-note sentences, but in her dedication to the bloodletting truth of a woman’s experience, set free, as the author herself has said in interviews, by her chosen anonymity. (Elena Ferrante, as we all know by now, is a pen name.) We relate personally to their narrator, a writer also named Elena; we discuss the experience of reading them, down to our universal disdain for their kitschy pastel covers, reminiscent of vintage tampon ads.

“But didn’t you lose sympathy for her when she ran off with Nino?” a friend asked me after finishing the series’s third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which ends with Elena fleeing her stifling marriage to take up with a man she’s loved since her gritty Naples girlhood, a journalist and scholar who revives her dormant need to write. I was struck by this categorical-feeling condemnation by my friend, a film producer and mother of two daughters, a woman highly invested in the stories of other women. Even setting aside the dusty cliché that female characters must behave likeably in fiction in order to be relatable, not to mention the dubious notion that children are necessarily better off with parents who remain (miserably) under the same roof, I couldn’t have disagreed more. Whether Nino is a cad or not (of course he is, as even those who have not yet read book four may suspect), whether Elena is making a mistake or not (as Lila, her oldest, closest friend, insists), felt to me beside the point. Ferrante is showing us the vital connection between agency and creativity, between desire and visibility—that is, Elena’s ability to realize herself both in life and on the page, with all the guilt and regret and damage to her two young daughters that entails. She has never been, to my mind, more painfully sympathetic.

This conflict is at the heart of the fourth and final installment of the Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa), translated by Ann Goldstein, which has just landed in bookstores. As Elena’s star begins to rise against Italy’s turbulent seventies and eighties, Ferrante reveals the disconnect between the rhetoric of the feminist movement, in which Elena finds herself front and center as a popular lecturer and political commentator, and the reality of the way that women’s loyalties are divided by motherhood. No choice is the perfect one, whether you stay home and devote yourself exclusively to your children (“You’re really a good girl, poor you,” her sister-in-law once remarked to Elena, neck-deep at the time in the domestic underworld), or seek romantic and professional fulfillment. “I soon discovered that I was getting used to being happy and unhappy at the same time, as if that were the new inevitable statute of my life,” thinks Elena, not long after she’s left her marriage behind. What woman who has both children and a career hasn’t felt similarly in two places at once?

Last year, in an interview with me, Ferrante shared her thoughts on the feminist movement and how she saw herself and her work within it. “Women have endured the harshest oppression—that which pushes you to feel yourself, imagine yourself, exactly as your oppressor wants you. Now we’re gaining ground, but it’s been too short a time. The most difficult achievement is the capacity to see oneself, to name oneself, to imagine oneself by trying to remove oneself even from the theories that point the way to liberation. An ideology is necessary in order to wage political and cultural battles. But it’s a veil like any other when we’re speaking of literature, when it’s a question of telling a story truthfully.”

The capacity to see oneself, to name oneself, to imagine oneself: My Brilliant Friend and its sequels are, in the end, nothing less than an epic of female identity and erasure. As Elena becomes more visible, Lila retreats into the shadows; her literal disappearance, which bookends the tetralogy, is prefigured by an existential one. “She possessed intelligence,” Elena writes of her, “and didn’t put it to use but, rather, wasted it, like a great lady for whom all the riches of the world are merely a sign of vulgarity.” For all of Lila’s ferocity, she’s a tragedy of absence, a “scribble on a scribble,” as she describes herself, her fear of “dissolving borders,” a recurring theme, becoming nightmarishly real in the culminating installment’s stunning centerpiece, a depiction of the 1980 Irpinia earthquake.

And yet, tellingly, it is Lila who helps make Elena’s career possible. After Elena moves back to Naples with her children, the two resume their friendship (much to readers’ assured delight); they even become pregnant at the same time and deliver daughters in tandem, one brilliant, one dutiful. Everything comes full circle in Ferrante, most devastatingly, in the highly symbolic fate of these two little girls. It’s only together, through mutual support and inspiration, Ferrante suggests, that there may be a way forward for women. When Elena writes her next novel, a tell-all about their Camorra-controlled neighborhood, it’s infused with Lila’s perspective. But finally, it falls to Elena to author the most crucial story of all: their own.

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