Taking off the mask: Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels
In these compelling books, the Italian writer - whose real identity is hidden - combines the novel with feminist polemic.
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Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series (known in Italian as the Brilliant Friend novels) could be at the intersection of a publisher’s fantasy Venn diagram; they occupy the spot where Anglophone readers notice novels in translation and male critics read women seriously. This is a remarkable amount of commercial success and critical acclaim for what, on the face of it, is a female bildungsroman that begins in 1950s Naples. Three instalments of what Ferrante has said is really one novel have been published so far, with a fourth and final volume due to appear later this year. My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay are set over 60 years and run to some 1,200 pages in Ann Goldstein’s English translation. It all seems a great departure from Ferrante’s three previous novels, each of which is a slim work narrated by a woman in crisis, spanning a short period in the near present.
It’s not hard to see the mainstream appeal of the books: Ferrante has created a world filled with almost everything the realist novel has to offer or, perhaps, what it offered in the 19th century (and what television might offer now) – plot, rounded characters who exist in society, and the sense that what you are reading is, to a large extent, like life. Each of the three books is prefaced by a cast list of characters that grows longer, more detailed and more necessary with each volume; postwar Italian politics drifts in and out of focus, as does the role of the Camorra in Naples. Even more accessibly, the story is framed as a thriller.
At the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, Elena and Lila are in their late 60s. Lila, who has never left Naples, has gone missing and Elena, now a successful writer in Florence, decides to write about their friendship – a subject Lila has vetoed – going back to their childhood. Although the thriller device quickly makes way for a coming-of-age story in My Brilliant Friend, we are reminded of the mystery element at the beginning of each of the subsequent volumes; by the end of these Lila is still missing and the fourth book will have the difficult task of covering 30 years to bring us to the present day. Now may be the very best time to read the series, before Ferrante can disappoint us with her resolution.
Ferrante’s remarkable achievement so far is to combine the “large, loose, baggy monster” mode of novel and feminist polemic, without killing the appeal of the first or the force of the second. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena and Lila pore over a copy of Little Women for months. Lila, the school genius, is inspired to write a 10-page short story; Louisa May Alcott is still a little beyond Elena, who is bright, diligent, has beautiful handwriting and likes to please. When Elena says, “We thought that if we studied hard we would be able to write books that would make us rich,” this has to be, we think, the plan of Lila, “that terrible, dazzling girl” who fascinates Elena and terrifies everyone else.
Lila, a prodigy who has taught herself to read at 3 and learns Latin (and later all the Greek she can find) from a textbook, isn’t allowed to carry on past middle school (her father won’t pay the fees). It’s dutiful Elena who stays on, wins a scholarship to study classics at university, marries the dullest member of a prominent socialist family and publishes a novel at 23. Lila is scared of no one and her gifts, which seem quite fantastically versatile at times, find one unexpected outlet after another: she designs a strikingly original pair of shoes, runs a grocery store, thinks up innovative ways to teach children, has a flair for early computer programming. She is, of course, unconventionally beautiful; so striking in her wedding photograph that the film director Vittorio De Sica asks about it after seeing it in a dressmaker’s window.
The mention of Little Women should be a dog-whistle to anyone who has read the book. Throughout the series Ferrante tests the dilemma Alcott poses (primarily through Jo March) – can you be a woman and a writer? Can you be a writer and happy, or exist in society? – and comes up with radically different answers.
As a narrator who is also a successful writer, Elena has remarkably few special privileges. It’s not that she’s the cliché of an “unreliable” narrator, rather that she explicitly undermines herself at every turn. The novels also keep us guessing as to which of its heroines is meant to be the gifted one. At her wedding to an unimaginative grocer, Lila tells Elena: “You’re my brilliant friend, you have to be best of all, boys and girls.” But during The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena is learning to pass exams and to impress the unimpressive men who like to explain things to her. Elena’s first university boyfriend takes on her political education: “I learned from him terrible things about Stalinism and he urged me to read Trotsky.” More significantly, Elena’s idealised object of affection since she was a girl is both a priggish bore – “Nino had a great need to express himself, to summarise his reading” – and her idea of an “ascetic prince”. It’s a sign of how intellectually lonely Lila is as a married woman that when she (disappointingly) also falls for Nino, she reads Ulysses because he has.
In The Story of a New Name, Elena says, “My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her.” Once you unpick the unfulfilled hypothetical clauses, what’s left is a sense that Elena can’t think about herself without thinking of Lila – but by the time the pair are adults, there’s little sense that they even like each other. In the same novel, Lila gives Elena the notebooks that she’s been keeping secretly (she makes a great show in public of no longer caring for learning). They’re not a diary, but “detailed accounts of the events of her life” – including all the events we’ve just read in the previous novel. Back in Pisa, Elena throws Lila’s notebooks into the Arno “as if it were her”. The existence of the notebooks is more interesting than the rather crude psychology. It’s possible to see them as a clunky narrative device – the equivalent of a convenient deathbed confession or a cache of letters in a Victorian novel. But in describing the notebooks, Elena is summarising what we already know (it’s the plot of My Brilliant Friend); even her account of Lila’s feelings is nothing new.
The most important of Lila’s gifts is her ability to write. We learn in My Brilliant Friend that “Lila was able to speak through writing” and later Elena is jealous of Lila’s “stubborn discipline” in keeping the notebooks and how fearlessly she expresses herself. The outlines of the novel that Elena publishes at 23 (helped by her mother-in-law’s connections) are kept deliberately vague, but it’s both praised and dismissed as a lesser Bonjour Tristesse, the 1954 novel published by a teenage Françoise Sagan; Elena’s acquaintances in Naples all try to read it for the dirty bits. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, we move into the late 1960s. Elena’s radical friends become more militant and are perhaps involved with the Red Brigades; they tell her that it’s not the time for writing novels. She’s bored with her stuffy husband, wants to study contemporary life rather than classics, and is ready for second-wave feminism to break. She encounters it in the form of “Let’s Spit on Hegel”, a 1970 manifesto written by the group Female Revolt, which blasts Marxists for wanting to overthrow capitalism but being happy to leave patriarchy intact. The collective’s founder Carla Lonzi also once said, sternly, that Sylvia Plath “wouldn’t have died if, rather than acting like a writer, she had simply written about herself to free herself.” And Elena has an epiphany about her attempt to master canonical works: “I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves.” She definitively abandons a second novel, which has already been rejected by her publisher, and begins a feminist literary study.
Ferrante’s patterning throughout the novel is so careful that correspondences can appear hundreds of pages apart. As Elena climbs the social ladder and continues to please, she thinks of it like this: ‘“as if I were competing for the prize of best disguise, the mask worn so well that it was almost a face.” Later, Lila reads Elena’s unpublished novel and condemns it on the grounds that “the disgusting face of things was not enough for writing a novel; without imagination it would seem not a true face but a mask.”
The best-known fact about Elena Ferrante is that she writes under a pseudonym. Discussions in Italy over her real identity have suggested that only a man could write such great novels. In a written interview in the New York Times, Ferrante’s response to the speculation was graceful and provided the best description of why her books are so necessary: “Even if we’re continually tempted to lower our guard – for love or weariness, for sympathy or kindness – we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we’ve achieved.” The Neapolitan series so far is a masterclass in how to take off a mask and be oneself behind a barrier of one’s own making. It’s more inspiring than it sounds.
The Neapolitan series of novels is published by Europa Editions