By Kabir Altaf
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels — My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child — tell the story of two friends, Elena Greco (Lenu) and Raffaella Cerullo (Lina), from their childhood until their sixties. Though divided into four books, Ferrante has said that she considers the quartet to be one novel since it tells one continuous story.
The quartet opens in the present time (circa 2010) when Lenu — a famous writer living in Turin — receives a phone call from Lina’s son telling her that his mother has disappeared. She has left nothing behind and has even cut her face out of any photographs in which she appeared. Lenu realizes that Lila has finally put her plan to completely erase herself into action. She then proceeds to write the story of their relationship. The novel we are reading is thus narrated in the first person, from Lenu’s perspective.
Lenu and Lila grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples soon after World War II. Lenu is the daughter of a porter who works at city hall, while Lila’s father is a shoemaker. It becomes apparent very early on that Lila is extremely intelligent — she has taught herself to read and write, though her parents are barely literate. At the end of elementary school, their teacher attempts to persuade both families to let their daughters take the middle school exam and study further. Lenu’s parents are ultimately convinced while Lila’s are not. This marks the moment when the two girls’ lives begin to diverge. Lenu continues to study and eventually secures a university scholarship while Lila enters into an early marriage (which ultimately becomes abusive). Both women are drawn to the same man — Nino Sarratore — a childhood friend with whom both have an affair at different times.
One of the major themes of the novels is the nature of female friendship. Lenu and Lila have an often fraught relationship. There is an element of resentment from both of them. Lenu feels that Lila is more intelligent than she is, despite not getting the chance to study. Lila is sometimes jealous of the opportunities that Lenu has had to leave the neighbourhood and transcend their working-class background. This is symbolized by Lenu being able to speak and write in Italian rather than in the Neapolitan dialect. Lenu also marries into a distinguished family and has access to a whole new lifestyle, which she later abandons in her pursuit of Nino. Their mutual attraction to the same man also leads to some sexual jealousy between them, particularly in adolescence when Lila gets involved with Nino despite knowing how Lenu feels about him. Yet, the two women continue to support each other throughout their lives.
Gender relations are another major theme. The two main characters grow up in a world in which it is considered normal for men to physically abuse their wives and children. Lila suffers physical and sexual abuse from her husband and is castigated by society after she leaves him. Although Lenu becomes a part of the upper-middle class, she is also castigated by society for choosing to leave her husband and become Nino’s mistress. Nino, in contrast, somehow manages to have it all, never separating from his wife and continuing to have affairs with other women even after entering into a relationship with Lenu. She eventually leaves him because of his serial infidelity. Ferrante thus highlights society’s hypocritical double standard for men and women.
Additionally, the novels offer a political history of 20th century Italy. The Solara brothers (who are obsessed with Lila) are fascists and associated with the Camorra — the Neapolitan Mafia. Pasquale Peluso, a childhood friend of the girls, becomes a militant Communist and is eventually imprisoned. The quartet brilliantly evokes the conflict between fascist and communist forces, particularly in the episode of the strike at the sausage factory where Lila works after leaving her husband. Political conflict is also evoked by Lenu’s increasing bourgeois liberalism as she becomes a celebrated writer and the wife of a university professor. Nino can also be seen as a political opportunist as he abandons his old ideals and becomes an establishment figure, eventually becoming a parliamentarian. In contrast, Lila remains engaged with the reality of the neighbourhood.
Another important aspect of the quartet is the city of Naples itself. The narrative brilliantly evokes the geography of the city, from the girls’ working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts (most likely based on Rione Luzzatti) to upper-class areas such as the Via Tasso (where Lenu lives as an adult after leaving her husband). Several critics have argued that Ferrante does for Naples what Dickens did for London. In fact, due to the popularity of Ferrante’s novels, there are now walking tours of all the locations mentioned in the quartet.
In conclusion, the Neapolitan novels are an extremely engaging and powerful reading experience. Ferrante (and her English translator, Ann Goldstein) keep the reader hooked and turning the pages. I spent a week living and breathing Lenu’s and Lila’s lives. I would highly recommend the novels to those fond of epic sagas.
Kabir Altaf has a MA in Ethnomusicology from SOAS, University of London, and a BA in Dramatic Literature from George Washington University.