What We Talk About When We Talk About Elena Ferrante

by Gina Frangello

“When you write to me and say you love her work, I have a moment where I think, “But … Elena is my friend! My private relationship with her, so intense and so true, is one that nobody else can fully know!” — Claire Messud

To say that I have a few autobiographical similarities to the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, also named Elena (“Lenu”) Greco, would be an understatement. Born into a close-knit yet violent (Italian) neighborhood that no one ever seemed to leave, I, like Lenu, fantasized about ‘getting out,” and used education as my primary propeller towards a different fate. Like Lenu, I became a writer, married a brainy introvert, raised children, struggled with the dichotomies between family life and making art, had a passionate affair, found myself constantly returning to the city I’d once sworn to escape, ultimately left my marriage… I could go on. Most significantly, at the heart of Ferrante’s series, I also had a childhood marked indelibly by my intimacy with a more beautiful, more charismatic and powerful girl who, despite her many gifts, seemed doomed: in Lenu’s case, her best friend Lila, and in mine, my same-aged cousin who lived next door to me, whose name coincidentally also begins with an L.

Of course, Ferrante (whose real remains unknown) writes of girlhood in 1950s Naples, whereas I came of age in Chicago in the 1970s and 80s. The turbulent political landscape of Italy during the some sixty years covered by the four novels is divergent in many ways from the (also turbulent) history of the United States, and the quintessential Italianness of the Quartet is integral to the fate of its characters. Whereas in my old neighborhood, boys growing to men in a state of hopeless poverty and stagnation often turned to gangs or became small-time workers for the Mob, those in Lenu and Lila’s world are as likely to become involved with Communism or Fascism, go on the run for political crimes, and attend political meetings in secret, as they are to become “gangsters” of sorts — in fact, the two things seem somewhat inextricable, in a way less true of organized crime in the United States, where politics and the Mob are more financial bedfellows than ideological ones.

The novels’ immersion in Italy — in particular Naples, and more specifically one poor, dialect-infused neighborhood in Naples — is crucial to the understanding of how intensely personal readers’ responses to Ferrante have tended to be. Because although I am Italian-American and grew up below the poverty line in a neighborhood quite similar to Lenu and Lila’s, that fact — or any other biographical fact — seems irrelevant when considering the fact that almost all Ferrante’s women readers seem to feel much as I do: as though these books were written for them, to them, about the insides of their own messy guts and brain. To love Ferrante has almost become akin to a secret handshake in certain circles (similar to Anne Carson but on an explosive scale), yet it is fair to extrapolate that many of her avid American fans had upbringings radically different from Lenu’s and Lila’s in Naples. What readers relate to most are her characters’ fearlessly naked, almost unfathomably nuanced interior lives and relationships.

You don’t have to be Italian, or poor, or have a “getting out” story, or ever to have known anyone in organized crime, to feel Ferrante’s novels read your mind and cut closer to the bone more than other books, and on the strength of word of mouth buzz, Ferrante has become Italy’s best known writer. In our era of social media accessibility, shameless self-promotion, and hot young celebrity culture, this is nothing short of astounding: an anonymous Italian woman of a certain age, of whom James Wood wrote, “Compared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate,” has managed to make droves of American readers feel the way one feels when a favorite indie band signs on a major label: wait, that’s my band — they were writing about and singing for me!

It’s difficult to talk about Ferrante without talking about gender. By anecdotal and critical evidence, her audience is almost entirely female, and even male critics who laud her see her work as highly gendered. Writes Wood, “Ferrante may never mention Hélène Cixous or French feminist literary theory, but her fiction is a kind of practical écriture feminine.” One certainly doesn’t have to be a woman to appreciate Ferrante…but to what extent might being one change the experience? When I was halfway through My Brilliant Friend, the inaugural novel in the series, I posted on Facebook that the book should be “required reading for anyone who wants to understand female psychology.” Having now finished the powerful finale of the four, The Story of the Lost Child, I would stand by the sentiment, but at the same time have grown wary of my own description. “Nothing quite like it has ever been published,” writes Meghan O’Rourke of the series in The Guardian: “four novels that make up a single book… a kind of quasi-feminist bildungsroman that also happens to be a history of Italy in the late 20th century.” What is clear is that these novels are profoundly ambitious literary feats, unique in tone, style and scope, when it often seems everything has already been done. Ferrante’s achievement — one novel, told in four luminous volumes — manages to also be written with a complete absence of what Claire Vaye Watkins recently discussed as “pandering” to the male literary establishment. If anything is clear from Lenu’s voice — from Ferrante’s writing across all her books — it is that she implicitly writes for the universal She. Her prose — passionate, intimate, urgent, confiding — show no aesthetic concern for courting either male literary traditions or, perhaps, even male readers as a means of legitimizing her art, and indeed, she hasn’t “needed” them. Still, she is so scarily good that I can’t help but wonder: why doesn’t she have them anyway?

The Neapolitan Quartet is arguably the deepest, widest and richest portrait of a lifelong friendship between two girls/women ever documented in literature. Ferrante often draws comparisons to Lessing in this regard, but the depth of her exploration of Lenu and Lila, over four books, truly has no rival. The critics, too, seem in overwhelming agreement on Ferrante’s merit, and that in the Neapolitan series, she is at the top of her game. That said, it is hard to imagine some of the ways she is discussed in reviews ever being applied to a male writer.. Her core focus on female friendship seems to have led some to approach the novels’ complexity and multiplicity as so genre-busting and defying of categorization that it can smack of patronizing cloaked in praise. Writes Elizabeth Lowry in the Wall Street Journal: “How should we classify Elena Ferrante’s magnificently complicated Neapolitan quartet? The three previous titles in the series — My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013) and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014) — defy categorization. Are they genre or literary fiction? Soap operas? Political epics? Some form of memoir?” Though it is not in itself in any way an “insult” to have one’s novel seen as multidimensional or not conforming to one specific literary tradition, I find myself wondering whether a series of novels that explored the male psyche and relationships, while also involving politics, class issues, and a certain amount of meta exploration of literature itself, would be described as though its diverse themes were… so surprising. Didn’t Updike attempt much the same in his Rabbit series, and Roth through Zuckerman, and Elroy in his Los Angeles Quartet? Is serious fiction that chronicles characters over time and explores both the innermost depths of their intimate relationships, along with the political climate of the times and a profound interrogation of class struggles, truly such a confounding thing as to call into question whether we are reading a soap opera, or, as Lowry later invokes in her review, a thriller? Or does it only seem so because the focal characters are girls/young women for most of the pages?

If the lives of girls and young women are sometimes trivialized by the literary establishment (here and in Europe), they are treated with almost mythical devotion by Ferrante. Indeed, the one weakness of the Neapolitan Quartet may be that Ferrante devotes so little page time to Lenu and Lila as mature women. The singularly defining event of their lives (Ferrante’s titles are full of spoilers) occurs, in the final novel, when they are not yet forty, and the rest of their lives (especially once past fifty) are sped over in strokes so broad as to be positively un-Ferrantean. Here is a writer who can spend an entire thick novel on the every thought and deed of girls between the ages of six and sixteen, yet the same women, once menopausal, no longer seem to interest their author much. Likewise, Lenu’s daughters — three women with their own complicated history — are painted with none of the intricacy of the dozens of characters in her old neighborhood, and never rise above “types.”

Lenu’s lovers, as she ages, seem to merit no scenes; if she has close friends after she and Lila part ways forever, we don’t ever meet them. Perhaps Ferrante initially gave herself free reign and then, after some 1,000 pages, panicked and felt she had better wrap things up already. Whatever the reason, the final third of the final novel feels that thing one never feels when reading a Ferrante novel: rushed. While the first three books — and The Story of the Lost Child as well — have a quality of breathless emotional fervor, they also unapologetically languish on any detail or side plot that strikes the narrator’s fancy. Guns are delightfully introduced in Act I that are not fired by Act III — people drop away, major concerns shift. Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, though full of returning characters and at times coincidences that strain at realism, follow the rhythms of a life, not a curated narrative arc. It is disappointing, therefore, when the author who specializes in reading women’s minds and hearts seems to indicate that said minds and hearts are inherently less engaging in advanced age.

Of course it is arguable that Lenu’s story simply becomes less relevant once she “gets out” — something it takes her until her fifties to fully do. Because as much as Lenu’s and Lila’s stories excavate iconic themes of womanhood, the Neapolitan series is also a quintessential rags-to-riches story, in which the two girls’ different ascents from abject poverty, and the both beautiful and abhorrent neighborhood that keeps its claws in them, are as crucial to the story as any feminist themes or as the characters’ elaborate personal lives. Ironically, a recent piece Buzzfeed on held Ferrante up as a great writer of The American Dream. Writes Alissa Quart, “Where is the American equivalent of Ferrante? […] The inequality novel that Americans will read in droves, that critics pay attention to? There was once The Great Gatsby, Bellow’s Augie March, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and The Financier, even Raymond Carver’s working-class silent men of 30 years ago. Certainly those who claim the neorealist caption — Jonathan Franzen, recently dubbed an author of ‘failed-marriage razzmatazz’ by one critic — have neglected this story.” Though the claim that no American writers are writing novels interrogating social class and either upward or downward mobility seems unfounded (Junot Diaz comes to mind as exploring similar terrain as Ferrante on American soil; recently Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat took on the hopelessness and stagnation of new adults trying to make their way in a numb, corporatized world without opportunities), Ferrante’s prowess as a chronicler of class, place and history are not to be overshadowed by her focus on female friendship and motherhood.

In the end, however, no single “topic” can fully explain Ferrante’s resonance. As Claire Messud writes —

Politics and feminism are compelling and important subjects but they won’t make readers long for the novels with the zeal of a nine-year-old. Only the human heart can do that, the emotionally truthful depiction of the complex web of love, desire, loathing, envy, compassion and pain that binds people over a lifetime. Ultimately, Ferrante has framed her magnum opus — for all its tremendous ambition, and in spite of the tumult of events that resounds through the pages at ever-greater, eventually exhausting, speed — as a simple love story. These books deal above all with the perpetually unrequited but never extinguished Platonic passion…

I would extend this further to say that Lenu and Lila’s relationship, though central, is not the only uncannily rich relationship propelling the books, and that character — characters in interaction with one another and, of course, with themselves — is Ferrante’s rarest of gifts. She seems capable of transmitting the untranslatable alchemy of human psychology onto the page in a whole other league from even other contemporary masters of character like Franzen. Accordingly, her audience identifies fiercely with what her characters feel about motherhood, ambition, jealousy, desire, justice, writing, aging — Ferrante writes so ferociously, so from the inside out, that we know the inhabitants of Lenu’s world more intricately than we could ever hope to know such a large ensemble cast in even our own lives. It is easy to emerge from the Neapolitan Quartet feeling slightly dazed, as though everything we have ever heard about “character development” was little more than a bullet point list in the hands of other writers.

And Lila, of course is both Ferrante’s and Lenu’s piece de resistance. As Lenu says of her friend, in a cross between rhapsody and lament, “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. She stood out among so many because she, naturally, did not submit to any training, to any use, or to any purpose. 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.” In my own life, my “Lila” did not disappear without a trace at 66, leaving a wake of mystery behind, rendering herself forever my obsession. As people often will in real life, she instead kicked most of her self-destructive habits by her late 20s, settled down with a nice woman, became a police officer, bought a dog. In other words, in Lenu’s eyes, she was “reduced.” The Lila of the page — who is both one of the most multidimensional, characters in literature, yet also a metaphor, a riddle, a philosophical question with no answer — can never just resolve. “A hallmark of Ferrante’s writing,” O’Rourke says in The Guardian, “is [this] juxtaposition between matter-of-factness and metaphor, between hyperrealism and hallucinatory distortion.” Such is the magic of Lila, and of the series.

To commit to the Neapolitan Quartet is a rigorous and impassioned endeavor, not for every reader. For those who don’t go in for digressions, who don’t care for the distinction between live-wire emotional prose vs. sentimentality, who cannot be persuaded to care about the lives of girls and young women no matter how artfully and intelligently presented, the books would be an exercise in frustration, sure to be thrown across the room (where, heavy as they are, something would be broken, just as Lila might desire). For readers willing to be seduced, however, these four intoxicating novels comprise nothing less than a singular masterpiece.

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