I read the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend, a couple of years ago. It was both a compulsive and odd read; surprising. While it did not leave me ambivalent, I was happy to work through the rest of my very long to-read list before adding The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child to it. But when I finally got to book two, my God I could not stop.
I could not write a review one-by-one of books two through four of the Neapolitan Novels because I was too busy reading. I finished The Story of a New Name and literally cursed aloud that I did not have Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay immediately ready to go. There was this all-consuming, high-paced compulsion and complete immersion in these books. It was an incredible experience.
And being in this world is uncomfortable. I do not necessarily like these people, or this place. If this is the story of female friendship, then it is a friendship that I do not want in my life. But it is fascinating, and achingly real. There is a clarity in Ferrante’s eye, and an incredible lack of sentimentality in her telling.
“Leave, instead. Get away for good, far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organised lands where everything really is possible. I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighbourhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighbourhood that’s sick…And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.”
These three books remain firmly rooted in the Naples neighbourhood of Lena’s and Lila’s childhood, and trace the growing up, marriages, careers and children within their lives. It traces, too, Naples and Italy through the 20th Century; modernism, feminism, corruption, natural disasters. The cruel and brilliant Lila marries early and up, and is soon filled with horror at this new life; Lena plots her way out of poverty, into university and a career as a writer.
And here it becomes clearer why readers around the world became obsessed with the identity of Ferrante herself. The few facts we know about her seem to align with the narrator Lena, whose own first book is a raw reflection of the neighbourhood and its people. And this story is so very localised, so very intimate, I can see why people want to attach it not to creativity or imagination, but to a lived life.
“I gave myself weight…I knew how to do that, whatever happened. Everything that struck me…would pass, and I, what ever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand…struggled to feel stable. She couldn’t, she didn’t believe it. How ever much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being on pain of her resentment and her fury, she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself.”
Lena emerges out of Lila’s shadow into an smart and interesting woman, to whom we have privileged insight into her private foibles and insecurities. Reacting against the neighbourhood, Naples, poverty, the life she makes for herself is bold, and the later realisation of the parallels between her and her mother’s life are almost overwhelming to read. But Ferrante is relentless: the dark Naples pavement stones are given the same time and space as the most personal and heartbreaking moments. It all passes; it feels real.
And I watched Lila and her life almost like a horror show. From the beautiful and brilliant girl to poor and ill worker, deliberately performing ignorance in front of Lena and for herself, refusing to give anything in the friendship, maintaining it through a cycle of closeness and repulsion. She cannot align her own identity within herself so she uses those around her to perform and define the role she thinks she wants, but is untimately unsatisfied with and won’t accept. It’s terrible to watch, it makes sense.
Quite simply, this whole collection is fascinating. Ferrante’s sparse style and gritty gaze, combined with the thrill and horror of Lena and Lila’s friendship, makes it compulsive reading. Across these last three books, there is a peak of drama after which pacing is slower, but it is so immersive, personal and intelligent you just must read on.