I’ve been working my way through Elena Ferrante’s three translated Neapolitan novels for an interview with editor Michael Reynolds and translator Ann Goldstein, and some things are beginning to crystallize in my mind.
I think one of the things that makes these books fascinating is how Ferrante is able to make her narrator, Lenú, into a sort of Levi Strauss-ian anthropologist of her world; namely, Italy’s South during the ’50s and ’60s. No doubt that much of the success of these books also rests in the fact that this world is one that has been the source of much mystery, mystification, and fascination. In other words, it’s a romantic, inherently interesting world that has a very strong capacity to draw people in. It’s no coincidence that it has been the source of much of the Italian New Wave’s greatest cinema.
As a young, intelligent, independent woman born to working class parents, Lenú has a lot of credibility as an observer of this world, and she’s able to make strong insights on the various social strata. Obviously she’s strongest when viewing other working class people such as herself, but Ferrante is able to make her life cross paths with the local power brokers, various outsider families, the upwardly mobile, the middle class, and the dispossessed.
In fact, the more one reads the Neapolitan novels, the more one realizes just how massive a canvass it is that Ferrante paints on, and this may be the books’ best achievement. Here, for instance, are two pages from the sizable dramatis personæ the publisher has (wisely) chosen to place at the front of Book 2.
I think this massiveness plays into Ferrante’s strengths. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I don’t find her overpowering. She doesn’t tend to write aphoristically, and her books are not brimming with insightful observations by the narrator or the people she happens to talk to. The insightful qualities to these books (and they are there) come systemically, rising up from the fabric of the story itself, most palpably in the form of the innumerable interlacing subplots that populate these books. Ferrante’s key strength is taking Lenú on an anthropological tour of her society without making it look anything like that. It’s really anthropology disguised as a massive, entertaining novel.
One of the key aspects of the society that Ferrante is leading us through is the gender dynamics. This is a famously important part of life in Italy’s South. Here’s an example of how this looks on the page, when Lila gets back from her honeymoon, having been savagely beaten on her wedding night.
While this sort of this abounds in the Neapolitan novels, it goes beyond the stereotypical men beating their wives for their own good, and the wives implicitly partnering up to this arrangement. Ferrante touches on something almost tragic about it, something that I would say approaches the qualities of fate and legend. This is embodied in the character Lila, the best friend of the narrator, who is everything she is not: fiery, beautiful, genius, independent. Being from a working class family, Lila marries up (and, incidentally, Ferrante does very interesting things around what the institution of marriage represents for these women), and when she does get married it’s almost like a biblical fall. Fittingly, it is the climactic scene at the end of Book 1, and one of the strangest scenes in the series. Lila marries for dodgy motives that are not really her own; she’s almost badgered into it, variously by her own family and by the young men who are at her like a bunch of sharks. It’s almost as though marriage is a trap that women like Lila and Lenú will inevitably fall into, simply by the time and place in which they are born.
And then, in Book 2, you start to see Lila change completely. One of the fascinating things about Book 2 is wondering if Lila really has changed, or if these changes are just the way that her verve and independence manage to preserve themselves while trapped in a violent and patriarchal institution. Along with Lenú, we, the readers, have to try and figure Lila out. Similarly, Ferrante shows us the challenge Lenú and Lila face in attempting to determine just who is the man Lila has married.
This is another thing you feel very close to in the Neapolitan novels—this constant activity of trying to figure out everybody, to get beyond the impressions that they reveal in conversation and figure out who they really are. This question may come across most powerfully in Lila and her husband, but it’s everywhere in these books. this really drives home the quality of gossip that exists in this society, its function and forms and its power.
What one also begins to appreciate is the immense power of symbols and signs in this society. One of the books’ major subplots deals with a pair of shoes that Lila designs (this is the trade of her family). She wants to bring the shoes to market, and she makes a prototype, but she can’t begin to mass produce them or sell them without help. This is part of her motive for marrying her husband, who has access to money. But his money is inextricably tied to the Solara family, the resident bad seeds, whose young sons relentlessly torment Lila with sexual advances and romantic overtures. So, when on Lila’s wedding we see the eldest Solara son walk into the reception wearing the very shoes the Lila entrusted to her fiancé, it basically ends the marriage right when it starts.
This is an extreme example, but the importance of signals like this go right down to the smallest of facial expressions, glimpsed moments, sidelong glances, incidental remarks. Ferrante’s ability to weave them right into the story, and also into the texture of her people and their society, is really brilliant. It’s no small part of the anthropological power of these books, and also what lets her push these relationships toward tragedy and legend. In his piece on Ferrante, James Wood quotes her as saying that “she likes to write narratives ‘where the writing is clear, honest, and where the facts—the facts of ordinary life—are extraordinarily gripping when read,'” and this is exactly what you receive in the Neapolitan novels. She is able to imbue these facts with so much weight and narrative resonance that they do become gripping.
And by the middle of Book 2, so many of these facts have begun to pile up on Lenú that it is overpowering. She’s still a teenager, but the pressures places upon her life are savage—trying to help Lila salvage her marriage, navigating her own romantic entanglements, maintaining her grades in school, staying out of trouble with the Solaras. It goes on and on. And again, I think this points us toward the supreme complexity that many have agreed is Ferrante’s trademark as a writer. It is almost—almost—too much to take as a reader.
Just to say a few words about Ferrante’s presentation of marriage, which I alluded to earlier. It is all-but-assumed that women like Lila and Lenú will become housewives. (Despite her brilliance, Lila drops out of school, and despite Lenú’s similar brilliance, she has to beg and plead with her parents to send her.) Once Lila and Lenú begin to develop breasts, the boys descend upon them with a rabidness. Even they put much pressure on themselves to find a suitable mate before they face the fate of being old maids in their mid-twenties. And yet, it’s also just as clear—to us and to them—how nearly impossible it is to marry correctly, when there are so many mixed motives for marrying a man, and when the men prove so inscrutable. Reading these books, one gets the clear sense that it is inevitable that the first marriage will be a mistake, and that any healthy marriage will have to be at least the second one, if not the third. This is a fact of life simply baked into the world in which these women are born. I think the presentation of this—subtly, sympathetically, and without lodging blame at any one gender or institution—is one of Ferrante’s most interesting statements about gender, and does much of the work of pushing these books toward having a distinct feminist viewpoint. Revealing the immense complexity of what marriage is to these people, yet still managing to make us sympathize with the female viewpoint, feels to me one of the things that is freshest about the gender politics of these books.