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The Neapolitan Novels

Elena Ferrante

I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing. Even today, Italy has a weak narrative tradition. Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound, but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away.
Elena Ferrante interviewed by her Italian publisher, New York Times, December 2014

It’s about four weeks since I finished my Ferrante-thon. It started on a sofa in Paris and from the first I was captivated. I needed to know — in a way that now strikes me as increasingly rare in my reading — what happened next. I was drawn into the world of Lenù and Lila, the world of the neighbourhood in Naples where they spend their childhood, into the increasingly complexities of their lives, and I never wanted to leave. And so when Jia Tolentino writes that Ferrante is ‘equally pulpy and brilliant’, I’m reminded of my own observation that there is something almost soap-opera-like about the Neapolitan novels, and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways. My reading was greedy; I took no notes, marked not a single passage. I simply always wanted more, more, more.

The first volume, of what Ferrante has said she considers a single long novel, opens with a frame in which we discover that the narrator Lenù‘s childhood friend, Lina, has vanished at the age of 66, erasing everything of her past, even cutting herself out of old photos. We know that she has remained in Naples while Lenù has left the neighbourhood, left the city, and is now in Turin. How I love books in which what you know already has no effect on the intensity of your desire to find out what happens! The Neapolitan novels, always with the friendship between these two women at their heart, are the story of how Lenù has escaped from the destiny of their childhoods (if indeed she has) and how she is now making Lila reappear, by writing everything of their lives together down.

Friendship, though this is what so many reviews emphasise, seems hardly the right word for the relationship between Lenù and Lila. This is something closer, a kinship, a recognition: they are two halves of the same whole. Lenù observes on multiple occasions that when one is doing well, the other is doing badly. They are tied together in some way that is impossible to unpick. (This inverse relationship, of deep recognition, of attraction and repulsion, but always — no matter how far apart they may be — connected destinies reminded me in some way of Mad Men & the relationship between Peggy and Don. But don’t say anything: we have the whole of the final season ahead of us.)

One aspect of the brilliance of these novels lies in both their specificity and their universality. At first I was only vaguely aware that we were in 1950s Naples, but mirroring Lenù and Lila’s gradual understanding of the constraints and violence of the world around them as they grow from childhood to adolescence, the specificity of their life in the neighborhood in all its detail is revealed to the reader. While theirs is a particular nexus of gender and politics and nationality (even regionality) and history, isn’t this the way we all grow to gradually understand that the world we grew up in — with all its implicit values and accepted modes of living — is just one way of being? And for any bookish reader, the route Lenù takes out of the world they are born into — the route of education and reading, which in turn leads to links into a world one had hardly imagined existed, and that initially seems without fault — is a familiar one.

Sometimes I think that there’s nothing worse than someone pushing a book on you, saying how wonderful it is, how you must stop everything that you’re doing & read it right now. There was nothing that made me expect to read over 1000 pages of Ferrante straight. Nothing that made me expect to be waiting anxiously for September and the final volume of the story. I’ll just say that, when the time is right, you have a wonderful, singular, world-altering experience ahead of you. The last words go to Elena Ferrante:

 Q. What is the best thing that you hope readers could take away from your work?

A. That even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A. No.Elena Ferrante interviewed by her Italian publisher, New York Times, December 2014

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The Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, all translated by Ann Goldstein. The final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, will be published in English in September.

Thought-provoking, moving & funny:  The Promise in Elena Ferrante, Jia Tolentino

Ferrante interviews:

New York Times, December 2014

The Paris Review, Spring 2015

 

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