The fourth and last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels has just been published. Helen Archer looks back at the series and reflects on its study of female friendship and Italian life
Towards the end of Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final book in her Neapolitan series, Lila, the titular ‘brilliant friend’ of the first, says to Lenù, our narrator: “Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likeable ones and the unlikeable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.” Rest assured, this is no bad novel. Not everything in the end will console you.
It is all too easy to see the thread that runs through Ferrante’s books, from the slender yet brutal works of her early career through to the huge but no less furious canvases of her latest ones. The same female characters inhabit each world she creates, in different guises. “Starting from the age of thirteen or fourteen,” says the main character of her 2006 book The Lost Daughter (a book whose title is in itself remarkably similar to the Neapolitan series’ final book, The Story of a Lost Child) “I had aspired to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective. Naples had seemed a wave that would drown me.” That voice, in a book which dissects the nature of maternal ambivalence, could be talking from the pages of the early works of Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, or indeed it could be the voice of the Neapolitan series’ narrator Elena (Lenù) Greco.
The similarity between each main character has led to speculations of an ongoing autobiography at work. That we know nothing of the author – and that she shares her pen name, Elena, with the character of Greco – only exacerbate such theorising. The books are about women at different stages of life, precursors, perhaps, of each other. Those earlier novels are angry meditations on what it is to be a wife, a mother, and a daughter, and an examination on how to extract oneself from the bondage of such rôles. But more than anything, they are about that grasping on to the (female) self, the never ending investigation of what it is to *be*.
The Neapolitan series is a departure from Ferrante’s usual modus operandi, yet it is no less intimate a reflection on the female sphere. Taking place over six decades, from the 1950s into the 2000s, the four dense novels are not confined to the inner workings of an individual – they also encompass the story of a specific place and time, a neighbourhood, and the people of that neighbourhood, mirroring in doing so the politics of an entire country. Surrounding our two main protagonists are a cast of characters, the sons and daughters of grocers, Cammorists, communists, fascists, shoemakers, porters, postmen-poets. The neighbourhood itself becomes a major, threatening character – nestled into the side of Vesuvius, it is dangerous, violent, unpredictable, dirty, a villain running through the book devouring its own.
But the heart of the series lies in tracing the lives of the narrator, Elena Greco and her childhood friend, Lila Cerullo, two bright and competitive classmates. The thing that will separate the fate of these girls, that will put them on different paths, is education. Although the less intelligent of the two during their time at school together, Lenù was given one, Lila was not. For Lenù and for her classmate Nino an education is a way of elevating themselves, of escaping the neighbourhood, and also, therefore, their class. Lila, meanwhile, with her raging intellect, will stay for the rest of her life in that small part of Naples in which they grew up.
Granted a scholarship at the university in Pisa, Lenù changes her language from the Naples dialect of her youth to proper Italian. She finds she nevertheless cannot fit in, always seeing herself as the poor relation to the women around her. “I struggled day and night to feel myself present, to not let myself be marginalised, to fight against those who considered me an upstart little woman without talent.” In these years, she starts her career as a writer, and tries to recreate herself for the middle classes. She turns against Lila, cuts off all contact with the neighbourhood and her past, but can never seem to quite outrun it.
Lenù will have a lifelong struggle with feelings of inferiority, which start in the classroom she shares with Lila. When she marries into a wealthy and cultured family, she worries about being subsumed, worries that her autonomy is not autonomy but subservience. She sees her writing talent as fluke. She has made all the right moves, yet the society she has entered is one in which she feels that she cannot belong. Because she does not truly value who she is or where she came from, she is lost, and her move up the social stratosphere becomes meaningless. She sees this not only in Florence, where she settles in her early married life, but every time she goes back to Naples, where she is treated like a minor celebrity, making her uncomfortable, and exacerbating her feelings of guilt at leaving. She feels like an imposter in both cities. “It seemed to me that my world was and would forever remain the neighbourhood, Naples, while the rest was like a brief outing in whose special climate I could imagine myself as I would never in fact be.”
“A woman without love for her origins is lost”, her sister-in-law will later assert, and much of the final novel deals with Lenù’s return to that part of Naples in which she grew up, in search of some sort of authenticity as a writer. Her return is, she tells Lila, “an experiment in recomposition. You’ve managed to have your whole life here, but not me: I feel I’m in pieces scattered all over”. She will never succeed in shaking her ambivalence to the city of her childhood, though. “From Via Tasso the old neighbourhood was a dim, distant rockpile, indistinguishable urban debris at the foot of Vesuvius. I wanted it to stay that way: I was another person now, I would make sure that it did not recapture me.” But “The neighbourhood for me, even more than my family, was Lila”, and it is Lila who keeps drawing her back.
Lila, meanwhile, has no formal education to speak of and yet has an insatiable hunger for knowledge, a capacity for experience, a fearlessness which Lenù covets. As demonstrated in childhood when she consumed the contents of the local library, using her family’s cards to take out as many books as she can, Lila loves knowledge just for knowledge’s sake, rather than as a public accomplishment – indeed, she keeps much of her learning hidden from everyone. While Lenù moves to Florence and tries to hide her dialect, Lila hides her knowledge of proper Italian. “Every sentence demonstrated that she was more cultured than she wished to appear,” notes Lenù. “She possessed intelligence 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 … All of us had submitted and that submission had – through trials, failures, successes – reduced us. Only Lila, nothing and no one seemed to reduce her.”
Lila cannot accept any limits for she has no limits, and Lenù will forever follow in her wake. Indeed, Lenù finds her creative self unable to function without Lila’s input :”Something was released from her very body that enthralled me, stimulating my brain as it always had, helping me reflect”; “As usual half a sentence of Lila’s was enough and my brain recognised her aura, became active, liberated my intelligence.” Yet without a formal education, Lila herself has no lasting outlet for her talents. “Like any artist without an art form, she became dangerous”, writes Toni Morrison in her own book about the effects of childhood friendship, Sula (“we was girls together”): Lila becomes proof of that.
The females are surrounded by a world of men from the very start, who offer them different and opposing futures – men who will later use politics, sex, and violence to order their lives. Both Lila and Lenù resist such paths. These are women who ultimately wish to live as independently as is possible in that specific place and time, having seen in their childhoods the suffering that men could bring, be it through beatings or through insubstantial, superficial love. Lila fears becoming Melina, turned mad through unrequited love, who stalks the back alleys of their childhood wailing and crying and eating soap, while Lenù seeks to avoid the fate of her lame mother, an angry, unfulfilled, disappointed woman. Their witnessing of childhood violence never really leaves them, either – it becomes embedded in some deep part of their psyche, to rear its head at their most emotionally heated moments. On discovering the depth of her lover’s unfaithfulness, for example, rage consumes Lenù, and she wonders “Am I always this furious other I? I, here in Naples, in this filthy house, I, who if I could would kill this man, plunge a knife into his heart with all my strength? Should I restrain this shadow – my mother, all our female ancestors – or should I let her go?” As the fourth book goes on, the men fade away, gradually at first, then rapidly, leaving behind them husbandless wives and fatherless children.
As the decades progress, the neighbourhood changes, and so does the country and its politics. Steady globalisation has done for the struggle for the rights of workers, and the old politics becomes a thing of the past. “These were complicated years. The order of the world in which we had grown up was dissolving. The old skills resulting from long study and knowledge of the correct political line suddenly seemed senseless. Anarchist, Marxist, Gramscian, Communist, Leninist, Trotskyite, Maoist, worker were quickly becoming obsolete labels, or, worse, a mark of brutality. The exploitation of man by man and the logic of maximum profit, which before had been considered an abomination, had returned to become the linchpins of freedom and democracy everywhere.”
The feminism displayed in the books is a feminism that has its roots deeply embedded in the class struggle. There is the constant underlying question of whether these women can be architects of their own fate, of how much of it is left to family, to upbringing, to environs. Lenù has realised many accomplishments, in spite of all the obstacles in her way – and yet simultaneously, because she is intelligent but also because she is constantly comparing herself to that mysterious ‘other’ of Lila, she realises that ultimately they mean nothing. “What was I doing in Naples … Was I lying to myself when I portrayed myself as free and autonomous? And was I lying to my audience when I played the part of someone who, with her two small books, has sought to help every woman confess what she couldn’t say to herself? Were they mere formulas that it was convenient for me to believe in while in fact I was no different from my more traditional contemporaries? In spite of all the talk was I letting myself be *invented* by a man to the point where his needs were imposed on mine and those of my daughters?”
Lenù can see her writing, her life’s work, over time, become out of date, irrelevant in the shifting culture. Much of the series is a meditation on the life on a writer, and the perhaps inevitable appropriation of the lives of others. Lenù uses Lila’s life – she uses Lila’s very *being* – as fodder for her work. So parasitically has she mined Lila’s world to give her own meaning, that she finds herself doubting the authorship not just of her work, but of her own personal choices. Yet she constantly self justifies, telling herself that without her to record it, Lila’s existence would go unnoticed, that there is in fact a mutually advantageous symbiosis at work : “I loved Lila. I wanted her to last. But I want it to be I who made her last. I thought it was my task. I was convinced that she herself, as a girl, had assigned it to me.” What Lila gets from this set-up becomes less and less clear. Lenù bears witness to this life that could so easily have been hers, but in doing so she betrays, again and again, Lila’s very self. Later, she says “I am no longer able to distinguish what’s mine and what’s hers” – though in fact Lenù has never really distinguished between what is hers and what is Lila’s. She has always wanted whatever Lila has, mainly because of the deep seated inferiority she feels in comparison to her: “I listened to Lila and felt my insubstantiality”
Even towards the end of her life, even as her successes keep coming, Lenù cannot shake the feeling that Lila will somehow, in some way, overshadow her, that perhaps Lila will write her own book, tell her own story, that Lila will therefore be the one remembered, and Lenù the mediocre one, the forgotten existence. Lenù realises that if Lila wrote a novel – if she was in fact writing one – it would make Lenù’s life, her work, her struggle, meaningless: “My entire life would be reduced to a petty battle to change my social class”. Yet Lila denies any such ambition. “To write, you have to want something to survive you. I don’t even have the desire to live”, she declares.
The character of Lila can be seen as a symbol for artistic anxiety, but she also functions as a doorway to self knowledge. Because in the end, these four books have come from Lenù, and she is telling not Lila’s story, but her own. In life, as in fiction, there is a creation, a deliberate construction of self, and Elena can rightfully claim the story of Lila because she is the author of that story – it is her work, it is her enduring masterpiece. Ultimately, the series is not about Lenù’s relationship with Lila, but her relationship with herself.