Who is not reading Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels? It seems that anyone interested in literary fiction is enraptured by this series of books set mostly in Naples that tells the life story of two ‘frenemies’. I first picked up the books last year when I was planning to visit that part of Italy since I always like a fictional take on my vacation locales. I had heard lots of good things about the series but now the plaudits are everywhere – including one from Zadie Smith that I found astonishing. In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers and Company, Smith confided that she considered Ferrante’s writing so superior she questioned her own ability to write anything worthwhile from now on. High praise indeed.
So, I started to read the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, originally published in Italy in 2002. Set in the late 50s and 60s the story felt so familiar to me because its world was similar to the one where I spent my childhood in Cyprus (the Greek side – because everyone asks – and the fact that Elena Greco translates into Helen the Greek). The small, interconnected community, where everyone knew each other, the children’s desperate academic ambitions, the intense relationships among the girls, were all recognizable. As one friend who also read the books said, these elements are not necessarily unique to mid-century Mediterranean countries, but to me the details and emotions of Ferrante’s narrative are distinctly of that time and place.
Elena Greco, the narrator, tells her story and that of her ‘brilliant’ friend, Lila Cerullo in a touching and intimate way but within the larger context of politics, social and class issues, economic realities, and intellectual questioning. Even though the two are young girls in the first novel, they are aware of their social standing, the constant money worries of their families, and their yearning to escape their poverty through education. The violence that swirls around and often smashes into them is an accepted part of their lives – tragically more so for Lila.
But in spite of their seemingly conventional desire for love and a better life, the two are complicated, difficult characters and wholly unpredictable. Lila may be presented as the more challenging one but if you read the rest of the quartet you will realize that Elena’s temperament is equally confounding. They adore each other, they despise each other, they hurt each other. Ultimately, they’re trying to understand each other, their efforts giving shape to the question: how well can anyone really know anyone else?
A number of reviewers of the books have remarked how far removed the Naples of these novels seems from the actual city and its topography. No doubt Naples was and is a gritty, grimy city but it is also punctuated by beautiful buildings, boulevards and stunning urban and seacoast vistas. Ferrante, however, focuses on the inner workings of the city and, its people and their claustrophobic existence. Beaten down by life, they have no time or energy to look at the beauty just beyond their immediate neighbourhood.
Most of the people I’ve talked to about these books have read all four. They would reach the end of one, appreciate its intricacies and charms but could hardly wait to start the next one. Because in spite of its eloquence and literary merits, the series is still plot-driven. Life happens to these women, their friends, lovers, husbands, children, and we want to know how, and if, they deal with it. In the very first page of the quartet, we know that Lila is now an older woman and she has disappeared. Even though much happens in each book, at the end of each installment, you cannot help but go back to that first page of My Brilliant Friend and wonder what happened to her. This is not the only plot device, however. As the books’ layers peel away, you are compelled to understand the changes in the characters, their self-awareness (or the lack thereof) and the evolution of their worlds. But be forewarned, there are no easy answers or tidy resolutions.
The quartet was originally published in Italian and took the country by storm. The popularity of the books demanded translations in many languages and the English version has been equally successful. In this case, the quality of the translation by Ann Goldstein is remarkable. She captures Ferrante’s economy of language that communicates deeply but with nuance. I do wish I could read the original Italian but I understand that Goldstein’s interpretation is completely faithful.
In any discussion of Ferrante, I have to mention her elusiveness and refusal to appear in person anywhere to promote her books. Apparently, she will only agree to be interviewed in writing. Many have said that it’s because her writing is too personal, too close to what has happened to her in her own life. But another reason was revealed by James Wood in The New Yorker. He dug up a letter that Ferrante wrote to her publisher about her role in promoting her books:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t…
It reminds me of some advice given by a university professor that I once had for a course on Shakespeare. He kept reminding us that we could try to figure out what the author or playwright was thinking and feeling while writing but urged us to appreciate Hamlet’s words: “the play’s the thing”. So it is with Ferrante’s work. It stands on its own, not really needing additional interpretation by the author.
I can’t say for sure that being in that part of Italy enhanced my appreciation of the books, but I’m glad I experienced a little of the atmosphere that inspired both Elenas.
Apparently plans are afoot to make the books into an Italian TV series. Let’s hope there’s a golden age of television in Italy as well.
– Miria Ioannou
Photos by Miria Ioannou