Elena Ferrante’s first novel was so painful I had to stop reading it. At seventy-five I’m no longer willing to put myself through torture just to be able to say I’ve read a trendy book. So much for The Days of Abandonment, I thought, so much for Ferrante. But when each of my two New York City book clubs chose one of her Neapolitan novels as the next assignment, I gave in. I loved My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, and immediately devoured the second and third (The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). Then, to catch up with the other book group, which had already met to discuss it, I started number four, The Story of the Lost Child. I’ve not finished this one yet but can say with assurance: All four are terrific.
Ferrante writes as if there were no tomorrow. She hits the ground running and then quickens the pace. Intensity is her middle name. Honesty—a brutal candor, so relentless and searing it takes your breath away—is her reason for being. She tells the truth about life in the slums of Naples (harsh, violent), the human heart (passionate, unreasonable), Italian politics,a national sickness), relations between women and men (stormy and difficult), women’s sexual experience (not what it could be), and, ostensibly at least, friendship, the theme that unites the four novels. I say “ostensibly” because I’m not sure friendship describes the relationship between her two main characters, Elena Greco, the narrator, and her best friend Lila Cerullo. It is both less and more than that.
Ferrante excels at ripping the façade off things. In the novel’s opening scene her best friend shoves Elena’s favorite and only doll down a hole in the grate above Don Achille’s basement. Elena, who can’t think of anything else to do, shoves Lila’s doll down the hole, too. This is friendship. Characteristically, Lila dares Elena to go with her to Don Achille, a loan shark hated and feared by the entire neighborhood, to ask for their dolls back. Frightened out of her mind, Elena trails her friend up the dark staircase to his apartment. “We were climbing toward fear,” Ferrante writes. “At the fourth flight, Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever. This is friendship, too.”
The scene sets a pattern. Lila is mean and aggressive, but also fearless, and supportive of her friend when she needs it. Courage is Ferrante’s other great theme. Truth, and the courage to tell it. Both reside in action. “We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors at that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.” In writing what I assume is the story of her life, Ferrante is doing the same thing; she climbs the long dark staircase towards fear by telling the absolute unvarnished truth.
One presumes it’s her own story because Ferrante has declined to reveal her identity. Elena Ferrante is a pen name; aside from her publisher, nobody knows who she is. It’s even been speculated that “she” is really a man—not likely, I think—but the point is, Ferrante achieves an unparalleled level of candor by keeping her identity private. The move has liberated her. There’s nothing she won’t take on.
Ferrante is the only female novelist I know of since Doris Lessing whose ambition is world-historical. She takes on history, politics, society, culture, gender, sexuality, education, and family life, all in the course of telling her story and that of her friend, stories sometimes hair-raising, always gripping, beginning in the fifties and going on through the eighties, involving the people who live in one poor neighborhood in Naples—shoemakers, fruit-and-vegetable sellers, porters, gas station attendants, carpenters, bakers, and crime lords. While her friend, Lila, stays, the narrator, Elena, leaves,
It’s education that frees her. But contrary to what some critics have supposed, this is no conventional bildungsroman. Ferrante attacks the liberal notion we hold so dear, that education is the answer to misery and oppression. While education enriches the lives of some characters and allows them to be generous and kind, it can’t cure self-ignorance and inner weakness or forestall the havoc they cause. But she doesn’t idealize poverty and ignorance either. The people of the neighborhood are chained by a history of crime, repression, servility, and violence that few escape. In Ferrante’s story, character trumps both education and environment.
Courage, honesty, loyalty, and integrity are what she prizes. She values people who take your kids when you’re in a jam, and then clean your house and cook dinner for you, who give you a ride to the hospital, visit your mother when she’s sick, buy you the schoolbooks you can’t afford, find your brother a job, listen to your sorrows—and tell the truth. When it comes to the things we can’t help wanting—beauty, fame, success, wealth, power, and romantic passion—all are admired, desired and even attained by some characters—but these attributes are eventually torn to pieces, one way or another. But don’t listen to me. Get a hold of the books and let Ferrante take you by the scruff of your neck; you’ll be in for a great ride and she won’t put you down ’til the end. ~
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