Very few people know the true identity of the Italian novelist who writes under the pen name Elena Ferrante, but I’d be willing to bet serious money that if we ever learn the truth, her personal history won’t contain a childhood friend very much like Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo. Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels, the last of which, The Story of the Lost Child, is now being published in its English translation (by Ann Goldstein), have captivated a certain rarified segment of the reading public—mostly women of a literary bent. Fans justly celebrate the addictive properties of these books, a saga that encompasses the entire life of its narrator, a writer named Elena Greco, organizing it around her relationship to Lila, her best friend from their early days growing up in a tough, poor neighborhood in 1950s Naples. Just about everyone assumes the novels are autobiographical, and describes their subject as the ambivalent wonders of “female friendship,” which makes them sound like a tonier version of Sex and the City, only with a lot more fights between the heroines.
That’s one way to read the Neapolitan novels, and you may feel compelled to lean on that interpretation if you want to sing their praises to, say, a mainstream audience in a women’s magazine or the members of your book club. Part of the rich flavor of these books comes from Ferrante’s skillful blending of the familiar motifs of commercial fiction with an elevated style and a refusal to stoop to sentimental reassurances and easily likable characters. Ferrante isn’t the first novelist to take two or more female characters from youth through adulthood, tracing their rising and falling fortunes in love, wealth, and status over the cultural changes in some swath of recent history. Past masters of this kind of story include the likes of Mary McCarthy (The Group) and Rona Jaffe (The Best of Everything), and these days you can even hold onto your highbrow cred if you admit to reading such novels, provided you make it clear you regard them as guilty pleasures.
With Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, however, you get to enjoy some potboilerish devices—the cliffhangers, the absurd coincidences (the guy who gets up to speak at the radical meeting Elena attends just happens to be her old college boyfriend; the new pal her husband brings home turns out to be her crush from high school), the voluptuous anticipation of a serialized narrative—but in the intellectually respectable package of a contemporary European novel in translation, and from a small press, to boot! Granted, the press, Europa Editions, insists on plastering the books with cover art as schmaltzy as a drugstore greeting card; the most recent has been branded with two little girls in pastel fairy-princess costumes, wands and all, sitting side-by-side on a picturesque beach. But we wince and shrug, because we are reading Ferrante, and a whole phalanx of prestigious literary figures has been mustered to confirm that these books are art.
No shame on Ferrante herself for any of this. Popular fiction is popular for a reason; it speaks to widespread needs and desires; her ability to harness its powers to serve her own less-compromising sensibility deserves nothing but admiration. The classic late-20th-century three-friend best-seller—Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls is another famed example—addresses readers confused by a sudden abundance of options. In the old days, you knew exactly what it meant to be a woman and what was expected of you. Now, in formulating a new female identity, you get to pick among several options. But while we jettisoned the old one-way model, we still haven’t rid ourselves of the fear that deviation leads to catastrophe, and that we are each obliged to get womanhood exactly right.
Of course there was never just one way to be a woman; the role always varied according to class. Not coincidentally, class and identity strike me as the true central concerns of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, not female friendship or even womanhood itself. Ferrante’s earlier novels were claustrophobic observations of the inner lives of women tormented by how femininity rendered the self vulnerable: devalued by abandoning husbands and devoured by children, just as the female body is penetrated and occupied by men and fetuses. There’s some of that in the Neapolitan novels as well, particularly an intermittent disgust for the flesh and a horror of infirm boundaries that seem to be hallmarks of all of Ferrante’s work. Lila in particular is prone to bad spells, when she experiences “dissolving margins” and senses “that something absolutely material, which had been present around her and around everyone and everything forever, but imperceptible, was breaking down the outlines of persons and things and revealing itself.”
Most women feel this dreadful usurpation first in relationship to their mothers: Where does she end and I begin, and what can I do to avoid becoming her? Answering that question is how you become a person of your own. Elena, who in the first novel of the series, My Brilliant Friend, wants desperately to break free from her mother, cleaving to Lila and later to young men who seem to promise an out, ends up in this last novel willingly adopting the limp that for her has been the most awful badge of her mother’s fate. But it’s not just that Elena, like many young women, fears turning into her mother. What she most wants to escape is “the neighborhood” (Ferrante never gives it a name) that has defined her mother’s life and values. A violent, censorious, corrupt, ignorant place, the neighborhood is a state of mind Elena describes with language (“black mire,” “muck,” “whirlpool”) that invokes suction and filth, a swampy imagery much like that Ferrante has used to bemoan the treachery of the female body.
The neighborhood is where Lila and Elena come from and what they want to get out of, a poisonous womb. As kids, they decide money will help them do this, and vow to write a book together. It’s the child Lila who produces this work, a handwritten story called “The Blue Fairy” that Elena will come to see as the founding inspiration for her own career as a writer. (Ferrante says she shared a similar plan with a classmate, but it was Ferrante who wrote the story.) Although everyone acknowledges that Lila is the more brilliant and talented of the two girls, her family refuses to support her education, so it is Elena who climbs out of the pit. By what sounds like sheer slogging force of will, she learns Latin and Greek, as well as how to shine in conversations with more privileged teachers and students by parroting conventional ideas. “I certainly had no particular passion for those subjects,” she explains, “for the real things and people they referred to. I had no training, no habit, only the usual desire not to make a bad showing.” Ferrante has a deft hand at conveying the vaporous abstraction of this sort of intellectual patter: “I talked about planning and rationalization, the socialist-Christian Democratic precipice, about neocapitalism, about organizational structures, about Africa, Asia, primary school, Piaget, collusion of the police and the courts, fascist rot in every manifestation of the state.”
Lila stays behind. At 16 she marries a well-off young grocer who she believes has the integrity and resources to transcend their surroundings from within. She’s wrong about that; he turns out to be beholden to the Solara family, a clan of vile, powerful, arrogant thugs led by two brothers who represent the worst of Naples. Elena heads north to Pisa, goes to college, begins a writing career, and gets married. In time, both women will leave their marriages, and Lila will briefly fall into the most grueling working-class existence, toiling in a sausage factory. Elena will discover feminism, and some of their old friends will join the militant leftist groups that harried Italy during the 1970s.
For much of the second and third Neapolitan novels (The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) the two women are estranged or rarely see each other. Yet Elena believes that her writing, her creative self, is entangled with Lila: “My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less.” Talk about dissolving margins!
In truth, Lila is a character so extreme, so unadulterated in all her qualities—fierceness, courage, defiance, honesty, resourcefulness, determination, self-reliance, and, eventually, pessimism—that she never seems persuasively real. Actually human beings relent every now and then. They doubt. Instead, Lila is a personification, the distillation of everything admirable, if also often harsh, in the neighborhood that Elena has tried to leave.
That the Neapolitan novels are primarily a tale of working-class aspiration and the self-mutilation required to attain a different, ostensibly better life seems to go largely uncommented-upon among Ferrante’s many middle-class Anglo-American readers. To get out of the neighborhood, Elena has to engage in a process of self-erasure, “re-educating my voice, my gestures, my way of dressing and walking, as if I were competing for the prize of best disguise, the mask worn so well that it was almost a face.” Women do this, yes, but so do the upwardly mobile. Yet to write well, Elena also has to channel Lila, because Lila is the chunk of vitality and authenticity she had to amputate along with her Neapolitanness. Lila never really leaves the city, tethered to it as if she were some kind of local spirit, and she is always threatening to erase herself entirely. My Brilliant Friend begins with the discovery that Lila has disappeared, eradicating every trace of her own existence, a vanishing that we learn, in the final novel, coincides with Elena’s decision to finally commit Lila’s story to the page.
The Story of the Lost Child takes these women from early middle age through their 60s, and—in its haunted final pages especially—it confirms my sense that Lila is not a separate person at all, but an exiled part of Elena. One of the few things we know about Ferrante is that she is familiar with Greek and Latin literature and feels the “closeness” of the classical world. As the Neapolitan novels progress, the books come to seem less and less a work of realist autobiographical fiction about female friendship and more and more a covertly mythic tale of the creation of a self through agonizing division and uneasy reintegration. “Either one is capable of telling things just as they happened, in teeming chaos, or one works from imagination, inventing a thread”—such is the view of fiction Elena absorbs from Lila. She thinks she’s failed at doing either. Ferrante, on the other hand, while assumed to be writing the first type of story, a prosaic account of “things just as they happened,” has instead delivered the ultimate twist and produced the second: a masterpiece of the imagination.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions.