WA Today (Australia): "Ferrante's novels are immersive, each and all together a world, one sliding into the next as characters and events mirror one another."
Date: Sep 4 2015
Before the vast spread of the four "Neapolitan Novels", Elena Ferrante published three slim, accomplished novels with a cathartic kick. Her bold talent is equally suited to the long haul. She is a writer of rare psychological acuity, emotional power and narrative dynamism. The tetralogy appears jauntier than the earlier works, but her style remains recognisably distinctive: analytical, compulsive, feral and theatrical, with touches of both melodrama and kitchen sink.
Ferrante's novels are immersive, each and all together a world, one sliding into the next as characters and events mirror one another. Her female first-person narrators are sharp and wound-up, battling to see themselves as whole and coherent. There is an impulse that feels forensic, as if reason had to be applied to the unclosed case of trauma, especially to an ungentle childhood.
Ferrante excels at mucky psychic ambiguity – repressed or volatile rage and desire, swerving moods, intimacy (notably of potent mother-daughter varieties) that troubles boundaries, and the indignity of underprivileged beginnings that upward mobility never quite erases.
The Neapolitan Novels open with Elena learning of Lila's disappearance. Elena, an author aged 66, is prompted to write the story we read. Her chronicle of their turbulent friendship takes us from their post-war girlhood on the poor outskirts of Naples through to 2010, and incorporates a wide array of detailed secondary figures in a socio-political landscape.
The final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, gets under way in a 1970s revolutionary spirit. Elena is leaving her husband for Nino, whom she has loved since childhood. Though she is at first inebriated by a sense of emancipation and experimentation, the relationship will ultimately cause her to muse that all relationships with men might be destined to "reproduce the same contradictions".
If challenging, her trajectory is triumphant, her books published to acclaim, her life becoming that of a sought-after public intellectual. Her blossoming autonomy enables her, after many years away, to confront her origins to the point of returning to live in the apartment above Lila's in their old neighbourhood.
Lila retains the mysterious magnetism and erratic brilliance that have charged the series. We see her enjoy local authority, a successful computer business, and a long-term relationship that produces an adored daughter. But her story (as the title heralds) is focused on the enigmatic loss of that child. Her grief exacerbates her "intelligence without purpose" and lack of self-love, along with a condition she has long suffered from and finally explains. "Dissolving margins" is a disturbing perception of reality as lacking clear contours and solidity. Profoundly destabilised, she is headed for the dissolution of her disappearance.
This is a novel busy with incident, encompassing suicide, killings, terrorism, the 1980 Irpinia earthquake, the vagaries of a corrupt state and those of the mini state that is the local Solara family. Particularly resonant are Elena's third pregnancy and motherhood, set against a recognition of transience and her own mother's decline. The latter's "capricious suffering" tempers her old abusive wrath and leads her into "uninhibited confidences". Her "frailty […] slowly opened the way to an intimacy we had never shared". The transition is rich in tension and poignant.
Language is fascinatingly central. Though Neapolitan dialect can convey frankness or closeness, it appears forcibly as the vehicle of the angry-frightened-sordid gut reaction. Learning standard Italian provides access to alternate ways of communicating, thinking and being, to social prestige and opportunities. Working as a writer does, too.
Elena's reflections on her novels, articles and the text we are reading allow Ferrante to compose a kind of ode to her vocation, which trickily combines self-doubt, self-belief, "the need for approval", slog and slivers of elation. Writing saves Elena. The shadow side of her salvation is the tragedy of Lila as a frustrated writer.
The earthquake horrifies Lila, while in Elena fear "settled in my mind in orderly sentences". Making sentences as a job is difficult: "anxiety now seemed to me inherent in writing". Yet writing channels anxiety, transmuting untidy emotion into something aesthetic and survivable.
Ferrante's fiction is powered by atmospheric portent, lurking dark energies that are insistently tied to Naples. Naples is not so much a character as the characters themselves, flowing into states of the heart and mind. Naples is "the violence we had experienced from birth", fury, squalor, queasy claustrophobia, failed progress, endemic corruption. But it is also staunchly paradoxical, decay and splendour both. In Ferrante an extreme will bounce into its opposite. And so, while escape is essential for Elena, likewise is the eternal return. She taps her writing's lifeblood from Naples. When her identities as wounded uncensored Neapolitan and disciplined author are in symbiosis, she approaches freedom and transcendence.
Lila has longed for an end to the Solara family's dominion, with its turbid blend of legal, illegal and Camorra-linked activities in which the entire neighbourhood is implicated. When this comes, there is the knowledge that it will be replaced by an equivalent system. There is no trust in the renewal of the city or the nation. Ferrante does not go in for complacency or facile redemption.
Novels broad with time and dense with event risk not going far down the well of subjectivity. The tetralogy, however, is concerned with history as the person absorbs it and the permeable border between the two. Public dramas are echoed in private ones and the intimate impact of occurrences emphasised with striking evocations of bodily sensation. There is a sociological flavour, the flitting between outer and inner a spirited assertion that the personal is political and the political personal.
The jet of language is hypnotic, making most of the Neapolitan Novels a decadent addictive treat. So good is Ferrante at mind-body discomfort that to read her is also to bathe in malaise, pondering the strangeness of physical personhood. This reader grew a little conscious during the last two volumes of the labour involved in maintaining drive and laying down the interlocking pieces of the grand puzzle. The Elena-Lila opposition, the project's glue, can appear unrelentingly stressed and there is perhaps a slight general tendency to overstate or overdramatise.
But even this sense of artifice or struggle with excess seems appropriate, built into the text. The author's travail as she moulds rampant material into literary patterns is a key theme. Elena Ferrante via Elena reflects, "I've been writing for too long, and I'm tired; it's more and more difficult to keep the thread of the story taut within the chaos of the years, of events large and small, of moods."
What must have been the forced march that Ann Goldstein pulled off in completing this heroic translation is to be vigorously applauded. In places the bones of the Italian are visible beneath the skin of the English, in the form of idiosyncratic vocabulary or syntax. However, much is excellent, sensitively rendering Ferrante's stark and nuanced language.
The momentum of the Neapolitan Novels' success is a delight. It is heartening to observe fiction so intellectually muscular and suffused with feminism fare wonderfully. The series is a unique achievement that marks its pseudonymous author as one of our most audacious, interesting novelists. It offers a Naples as slippery and tenacious as a childhood memory.