There are moments when what exists on the edges of our lives, and which, it seems, will be in the background forever — an empire, a political party, a faith, a monument, but also simply the people who are part of our daily existence — collapses in an utterly unexpected way, and right when countless other things are pressing upon us.The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante
I spent six happy days torn between my inability to put down the final book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet and my desire for it to never come to an end. I think that this was probably exactly what Ferrante was trying to do to me.
I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn. But once I have the reader’s attention I feel it is my right to pull it in whichever direction I choose. I don’t think the reader should be indulged as a consumer, because he isn’t one. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.
Paris Review, Art of Fiction No. 228, Elena Ferrante
Reading these four books, which are really just one long novel, has been one of the most singular and pleasurable reading experiences I can remember (my thoughts after the first three, here). The writing — the narrative voice Ferrante constructs for the fictional Elena (also known as Lena/Lenù) — is fluid, conversational, above all lucid, a word Ferrante returns to in her Paris Review interview, but subject to breakdowns, revealing what Ferrante calls ‘the magma running beneath the pillars of convention‘.
[I] work well when I can start from a flat, dry tone, that of a strong, lucid, educated woman, as many middle-class women are today […] Only when the story starts to emerge safely, thanks to that tone, do I begin to wait for the moment when I’ll be able to replace those well-oiled, quiet links with something rustier, raspier, and with a pace that’s disjointed and agitated, even at the growing risk of the story falling apart […] I enjoy breaking through my character’s armor of good education and good manners. I enjoy upsetting her self-image, her will, and revealing another, rougher soul underneath, someone raucous, maybe even crude.Paris Review
Now that the quartet is complete, it seems that these books contain everything. They are as viscerally physical as they are intellectual. The female body is here in all its forms: in childhood, adolescence, and old age; as a sexual being, as a bearer of children, as something subject to transformations that can’t be controlled. Thinking of Gigliola, a childhood friend who has been found dead in middle age, Lena writes, “Her body, supine on the ground, was enormous. How she must have suffered from that transformation, she who had once been beautiful and had caught the handsome Michele Solara.” We change, our bodies betray us in puberty, in the frailties of ill-health and old age — first making us the object of other’s desires§, and then the subject of time and illness. How is it possible to still know ourselves, Lena seems to ask, when outwardly our appearance is so volatile?
In the course of these books, Ferrante traces the subtle shifts in power between Lena and Lila: one or other always in ascendency, both — or certainly Lena — always measuring herself against the other. But the power in their relationship is always shown against the forces that shape their lives. Power that once seemed unassailable — whether it be the power of the mother over the child, the power of the family, sexual power, or the power of the neighbourhood mafia over the neighbourhood — is shown to wane and one day, perhaps, to vanish. Even as it seems static it is flowing from one person to another, a lesson that Lila seems to intuit and use from her earliest childhood.
Then there’s the space — the spaciousness — that a novel over four volumes brings. Space for the vivid detail of childhood and adolescence, and the very particular micro-geography of the neighbourhood which emerges from Lila and Lena’s confined world. But even as Lena’s world grows beyond the neighbourhood, and eventually beyond Naples, Ferrante plays with time, allowing it to slow and pool at emotionally critical places, and then move at reckless pace as it seems to in the relentless middle years of life, when things happen — bam, bam, bam — event piled on event.
Ferrante’s books are often praised for their honesty, which perhaps means the fact that she writes things that others might hesitate to say. Who can say whether the story as Lena perceives and writes it is ‘honest’? Her text is written to induce Lila to enter it, to “give her a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve, and defeat her”.
Lena is a complex character, obscure to herself. She takes on the task of keeping Lila in the net of the story even against her friend’s will. These actions seem to be motivated by love, but are they really? It has always fascinated me how a story comes to us through the filter of a protagonist whose consciousness is limited, inadequate, shaped by the facts that she herself is recounting, though she doesn’t feel that way at all. Elena Ferrante, Vanity Fair interview
It would be naive to believe that Lena’s narrative is the truth, or even ‘honest’ as far as she knows it. (And even more naive to talk of the ‘honesty’ being Ferrante’s: despite her anonymity, there is no reason to conflate the author and her narrator.) What people mean by this word ‘honesty’ is, I think, the amazing unselfconsciousness Ferrante bestows on her character. Lena is writing for an audience of one –Lila — and that one already knows her more deeply than any other. There is nothing that is not worth saying, no dark shadow of herself that is worth concealing. If she shows us her envy and anger and desire and confusion, it is nothing that Lila has not already seen in her. It is nothing that we have not seen in ourselves.
I feel, in so many ways, inadequate to the task of writing about these books. My reaction to them feels visceral rather than cerebral. Talking about them in terms of plot would risk making them sound ridiculous — because, perhaps as in life, there both is and isn’t a plot, and the plot is in some ways easy to laugh at, and it is anyway, beside the point. The plot is nothing and the situation — of being born in that particular neighbourhood of Naples at that particular time, of being a woman, of getting or not getting an education, of making one’s own means of escape — is everything. These aren’t shapely books, because each is just a part of the whole, and now that I have come to the end I would like to go back and see what shape that whole makes.
These are books that I feel I needed to read, without even knowing it. Books that show life in its messy continuousness and contingency. Books that show us characters who are marked by their history, marked by the political whether they know it or not. Books with a narrator who is sometimes unknown to herself, who makes choices that she knows to be compromises. They are books not to read, but to devour.