Conditions of Emergence: On Elena Ferrante

Conditions of Emergence: On Elena Ferrante

Conditions of Emergence: On Elena Ferrante

In the pseudonymous author’s Neapolitan Novels, the price of leaving Naples is that you can never be at home again.


At last, the cycle is complete. The “Neapolitan Novels” of the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante, a saga of female experience seemingly written in blood, which has taken the international literary world by frontal assault, has now concluded with its fourth installment. You no doubt have an inkling of the story. Two girls, growing up amid the poverty and violence of postwar Naples; two women, making their adulthood in a world of shifting possibilities and ideologies; two friends, locked in a lifelong embrace, sisters, rivals, doppelgängers, opposites. Lenù and Lila: Elena Greco, studious and disciplined, awkward, our narrator; Raffaella Cerullo, willful, tough, incendiary, stunning, her rival, muse, and subject. Around them in their neighborhood are friends, parents, siblings, teachers, shopkeepers, radicals, mad widows, camorristi—supplemented, as the narrative unwinds its length, by lovers, husbands, comrades, bosses, and children. By the end, the cast of characters has swelled to over 60—a Middlemarch of the Mezzogiorno.

Novels of friendship are rare, relative to the relationship’s importance in the modern age. Families fragment, partners come and go; friends are with you to the bitter end—and sometimes, as with Lenù and Lila, from the bittersweet beginning. But friendships, lacking the ceremonies of love or the structures of kinship, seldom offer tidy shapes for narrative consumption. Ferrante embraces the formlessness. The Neapolitan Novels, often pitched at the intensity of opera, have a narrative form that more closely resembles a soap opera. Season follows season, crisis follows crisis—rape, adultery, murder; abandonment, betrayal, retribution—but nothing is ever resolved. You wonder, away from the page, why you bother to put up with it. (Friends are sometimes like that, too.) Then you return, and are captivated by the drama once again.

How does she hold our attention? First, through sheer verbal force. “Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording,” Ferrante said earlier this year in The Paris Review (the first interview she had ever granted), “and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.” Energy, impress—consider this, from the beginning of the story:

Lila stuck into her skin the rusted safety pin that she had found on the street somewhere but kept in her pocket like the gift of a fairy godmother; I watched the metal point as it dug a whitish tunnel into her palm, and then, when she pulled it out and handed it to me, I did the same.

Second, as the passage suggests, an ability to reinhabit and imaginatively reanimate the experiences of childhood (and later, adolescence and young adulthood). Whether they are also the biographical experiences of “Elena Ferrante” (whoever she might be) is irrelevant. The obvious comparison is to Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of My Struggle, another multivolume first-person epic that has burst upon the literary scene in recent years. Knausgaard assures us, in prose of aggressive banality, that every word is accurate to his experience. Ferrante, in The Paris Review, offers a direct (and perhaps deliberate) rejoinder. “It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths.” Knausgaard transcribes; Ferrante transforms. Her prose is wine to Knausgaard’s mop water.

Third among the ways that she commands our interest—another contrast with Knausgaard and the rest of the general run of autobiographical fiction—is that it isn’t all about the narrator. Lenù’s obsession with Lila drives the story forward, and from the first she makes us share it. Here is how the tetralogy begins:

This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.

No context, no scene-setting, no word of explanation. You are plunged into the middle of things: the middle of a conversation with the narrator, it seems—or rather, of a long and ongoing series of conversations, as if you’re the one whose telephone had rung. If the Neapolitan Novels are “female writing,” they are so, among other respects, for the way they gossip with us, make us partners in the daily dialogue of girlfriends dishing the dirt, retelling and dissecting the “minute particulars” of intimate relationships (the phrase is Jane Austen’s), not from nosiness or jealousy or schadenfreude, though all may be involved, but from the fundamental need to navigate the social world, which consists precisely of those relationships.

* * *

Lenù’s love for Lila gives the story energy; their contrast gives it structure. Faced with the same brutal environment (“we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us”), they use their very different gifts to forge divergent paths. To paraphrase the title of the third installment, Lenù leaves and Lila stays and fights. The former’s story follows a familiar shape, that of the “scholarship boy.” Goaded by teachers who envision a future for her that she cannot imagine, she studies like a demon, joylessly, learning to mimic the accents of thought. Coming from a world where girls are scarcely expected to finish grade school, she eventually goes off to university—in Pisa, the north, the other Italy—marrying, before long, into a family of cultural aristocrats and developing into a professional writer.

The price of getting out, of course, is that you can never be at home again: not in your new home, not in your old one. Lenù’s in-laws treat her like a poor relation. The world of art and ease they introduce her to is never safely hers; the language spoken there will always be a foreign one. “Language” isn’t metaphoric. Her Neapolitan characters, as Ferrante constantly reminds us, speak “dialect,” Nabolidan. Italian is something else, the idiom of learning and status, of the great world beyond the city. What one can say, the other can’t: dialect for sex and curses, Italian for ideas. Lenù is divided, an impostor everywhere she goes. “[T]he effort I had made to get rid of my Neapolitan accent hadn’t convinced the Pisans but was convincing to [my mother], my father, my siblings, the whole neighborhood…. Behind my back they began to call me the Pisan.”

Lila’s path is far more difficult to chart. It isn’t up or down; it’s up, down, sideways, and out the back door, all in ways that no one else imagined. She stays, but she never stays still. Both mercurial and iron-willed, she follows every impulse to the bitter end, refusing all masters but accepting every consequence—­enduring everything, spinning gold from nothing, making the most conventional choices appear revolutionary. She is by turns a prosperous grocer’s wife, the lover of a budding intellectual, and the platonic partner of a hardworking proletarian; the designer of a line of shoes, the most despised wretch in the hell of a sausage factory, and the owner of a small computer firm. At first the novels’ fixed and shining star, she’s later glimpsed, as Lenù moves away, at intervals, like a comet, always traversing unexpected regions of the sky.

But the Neapolitan Novels are not just the interbraided stories of two contrasting heroines, like Amelia and Becky in Vanity Fair. Because we see through Lenù’s eyes, the contrast itself is weighted with emotion. She and Lila have the kind of relationship that belongs, perhaps uniquely, to sisters or lifelong female best friends: the arguments, the confessions, the tearful reconciliations; the mutual differentiation (I’m the smart one; she’s the charismatic one), which so often oversimplifies; the rivalry over men; the competition over status and success as student, lover, mother (“I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won”); the defensiveness of each about her own social or creative “territory.” Above all, as time goes by, the sense of being each the other’s bedrock, the guarantee that she exists. “[I]t was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”

When they are young, with Lila in the full flush of her beauty, Lenù’s feelings carry an erotic charge. In perhaps the most exquisite moment of the cycle—a rare interval of stillness amid the raging passions—she helps her friend prepare on the day of her wedding. They are 16. “I washed her with slow, careful gestures, first letting her squat in the tub, then asking her to stand up…. I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice.” Decades later, living on adjacent floors, they practically trade children back and forth. An article is published with a photograph that pictures Lenù with Lila’s daughter, identified as her own. Lenù’s own youngest daughter wants to know whose mother is whose. “We are mammas of both,” Lila says, “and we love you both.”

* * *

Whatever Lenù is thinking about, she’s also always thinking about Lila, because everything exists in reference to her. Just as there are two languages in the Neapolitan Novels, so, coordinately, are there two competing scales of value. One is the neighborhood’s, which recognizes only that which belongs to the neighborhood; the other is the world’s, which recognizes culture and achievement. However high Lenù rises with respect to the second, she is always in danger of being nullified by the first, through the voice of Lila and on the authority of Lila. The narrator, now a star pupil in high school, takes her friend to a party at a teacher’s apartment, their first brush with an upper-middle-class milieu. (Like most of the kids in the neighborhood, Lila has long since dropped out.) Lenù is feted; Lila, for the first time in her life, ignored. Afterward, the latter tears the whole thing down:

[T]hey don’t have a thought that’s their own, that they struggled to think. They know everything and they don’t know a thing…. Chimpanzees that piss and shit in the toilet instead of on the ground, and that’s why they give themselves a lot of airs, and they say they know what should be done in China and in Albania and in France and in Katanga. You, too, Lenù, I have to tell you: Look out, or you’ll be the parrots’ parrot.

It hardly need be said that Lila’s reaction, as devastating as it is, is also defensive. For all that Lenù lionizes her “brilliant friend,” the envy cuts both ways. The Neapolitan Novels would be a lot less interesting, a lot less textured, if the two main figures simply stood as opposites: Lenù bookish, Lila street-smart; Lenù naive, Lila her Bellovian “reality instructor”; Lenù all tortured self-consciousness, Lila all imperious self-confidence. Lenù may often seem to live for Lila, but Lila often seems to live through Lenù. In that scene before the wedding, as they pause at the fork in their roads, Lila makes the narrator swear to stay in school. “Whatever happens, you’ll go on studying,” she says. “[Y]ou have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

Yet Lenù’s greatest anxiety is that it is Lila who will, who does, go on studying. Not formally, but in her own capricious but voracious way. Lila, Lenù knows (or fears), has a mind that is equal to anything. When Lenù studies Greek in high school, Lila runs ahead of her and learns it first. When Enzo, the workingman whom Lila later lives with, starts to teach himself computer code, she teams with him and masters it herself. Half a volume from the cycle’s end—the friends are almost 40—Lenù publishes a novel that appears to implicate the Solara brothers, the local gangsters. She is terrified—for herself, for her children. Lila calms her with a long, mocking, eloquent speech. And Lenù’s reaction? “When she talked like that, with those high-flown pronouncements, the suspicion returned that she had continued to consume books, the way she had as a girl, but that for incomprehensible reasons she kept it hidden from me.” That’s where Lenù’s mind goes: not to the Solaras’ threat, but Lila’s.

The moment (“when she talked like that”) indicates the real crux between the friends: not learning per se, but language itself, the novels’ very medium and the basis of their narrator’s identity. Lenù’s writing has always been shadowed by her friend’s. The summer they turn 15, Lenù goes to the island of Ischia. She composes long, impassioned letters back to Lila, full of her experience—to silence on the other end. Finally, she gets a single letter, which demolishes all of her epistolary efforts. “Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote…she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her.” The letter reminds her of The Blue Fairy, a “novel” that Lila had written as a little girl, recalled by Lenù as a marvel. Years later, when Lenù’s first novel is finished (the story of her sexual initiation on the same island), she accidentally rediscovers Lila’s manuscript: “I began to read The Blue Fairy from the beginning…. But already at the first page I began to feel sick to my stomach…. Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book.”

Is Lenù no more, as Lila had warned, than a parrot? Lenù is the writer, the novelist—the author, we eventually learn, of 16 books. Lila, insofar as she exists for us at all, does so only as a function of the other’s text. But who is the original, who the copy? The tetralogy enacts a struggle over words, over who will get to tell the tale. Near the very end—it is almost the last thing she tells us—Lenù develops a crippling suspicion that her friend has been writing all along, that “the genius that Lila had expressed as a child in The Blue Fairy” is about to blossom forth in a masterpiece, one that will “annihilate” the name that Lenù has so effortfully worked to win.

She responds to the threat with a book called A Friendship, its title echoing My Brilliant Friend, the first volume of the tetralogy. “It told concisely, with the necessary disguises, the story of our lives.” She knows she’s violating Lila’s trust, but she does it anyway. “I loved Lila. I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last.” Lila cuts her off: no phone calls, no e-mails, no contact. At last—we are back to that opening paragraph, the call from Rino, Lila’s son—she disappears completely. Not only is she gone, but every trace of her is gone as well.

* * *

It is now, and only now, as the narrator has told us from the start, that the writing of the cycle can begin. “We’ll see who wins this time,” Lenù had said to herself at the end of the prologue 1,600 pages earlier. “I turned on the computer and began to write”—not “concisely,” this time, but “everything that still remained in my memory.” The Neapolitan Novels are one of those texts, like Proust’s Recherche, that narrate the conditions of their own emergence. Lila is its subject, but only her erasure makes its writing possible. A master of silence as well as of language, she becomes the absence Lenù strives to fill with words. Throughout the cycle, the latter is forever desperate to know: not the written knowledge that allows her access to the wider world (that she can get for herself), but the hidden contents of her girlfriend’s mind. Lila is the one who really knows—how men act; how the world works; what’s going on with the people around them; most importantly, what she herself is thinking and feeling, especially with respect to her friend. Now that she is safely gone, Lenù can begin to try to say, to penetrate beneath that surface like a rusty safety pin that digs a tunnel underneath the skin.

Ferrante published three novels before the Neapolitan cycle. All of them are short narratives focused on a single female character undergoing an intensely compressed, at times dissociative, psychological crisis. Here, by splitting that figure in two, she unfolds an endlessly expansive space of narrative play, of interplay. The psychodrama opens up into a sociodrama. But she also paints a portrait of the self divided. “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” Ferrante says in The Paris Review—meaning, understand about ourselves—an idea, she adds, “at the root of all my books.” Her narrator, she explains, is “always a woman writing,” and her task is to “organize, in a text, what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.” The prose, at first, is “dry” and “cold,” but underneath we soon discover “a magma of unbearable heat.”

It isn’t hard to map the terms of that description onto Lenù and Lila—Lenù lucid and organized, always striving for control, Lila mysterious, incandescent with the heat of life. Together they remind me of J.M. ­Coetzee’s remark that “writing is dialogic: a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself.” “All writing is autobiography,” he says, or rather, “autrebiography.” Lila is that “autre,” the deep self as terra incognita, seen in glimpses—wild, impulsive, elusive. Lenù is the self who writes, the conscious, reasonable “I.” Id and ego, we can call them, as long as we recall that Freud did not employ those Latinate abstractions. His terms were simply “Es” and “Ich,” “it” and “I”: the alien substance of the drives and the familiar self of our internal monologue.

Ferrante also says that writing starts for her with “fragments of memory”— frantumaglia is her word for this, Neapolitan for “scraps” or “bits and pieces,” an image, like “magma,” of generative chaos. Lila, we learn, is sometimes seized with the sensation of melting, as if her boundaries had disappeared. Lenù writes, she tells us, to give her friend “a form whose margins won’t dissolve.” Each self is the means through which the other lives; one is energy, the other shape. Lenù sacrifices all to make “Elena Greco” echo in the world. “[W]hat a fuss for a name,” her friend retorts, “it’s only a ribbon tied around a sack randomly filled with blood, flesh, words, shit, and petty thoughts.” The deep self lies beneath identity. Lenù writes to be remembered; Lila wants to disappear. (“[M]y favorite key,” she says, “is the one that deletes.”) Lenù writes; Lila speaks with brilliant abandon, and even when she writes, it is a form of speech.

* * *

But the most audacious way Ferrante figures this division of the self is one that is invisible to English readers. While Lila and the other Neapolitans speak dialect—the language, for Lenù, of childhood and neighborhood, primal need and primal terror, of everything she gets away from and compulsively returns to—their speech is rendered in Italian. Dialect itself, in other words, is present in the novels as an absence, as if in rising to the surface of the text, passing from the breath of speech to the frozen form of writing, it necessarily suffered that distortion—sanitized, socialized, made respectable and presentable. “Lila,” once again, is only known through “Lenù.”

Yet if Lenù banishes her alter ego so that she can put her into language, she does so only to invite her back. Where once she feared Lila’s presence in her work, now she prays for it, beseeching her, as in a kind of séance, to “enter my computer” and possess the text—“to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words…to say of me more than I want, more than I’m able to say.” Only what has been divided can be reconciled. “I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.” At the end, she isn’t sure it’s worked—unless, she says, “I am no longer able to distinguish what’s mine and what’s hers.” In fact, Ferrante hints that that’s exactly what has happened. When the totemic phrase “my brilliant friend” appears within the text—once at the end of the volume that bears it as a title, once at the end of the work as a whole—it does so from the mouth of Lila, and it refers to Lenù. So who is it who speaks to us? And who then is the subject of the work? Where does Lila stop and Lenù start, or is the question moot?

None of this is meant to claim that the Neapolitan Novels are simply an allegory of the divided self. The central figures may be seen as aspects of a single soul, but they are also independent, complex fictional characters, compelling not just in their interaction but also each in her internal contradictions. As time goes by, we realize that Lenù isn’t quite the timid bluestocking that she likes to think she is, a pawn in Lila’s social games and the victim of faithless men. Early on, she learns the power of the phrase I didn’t do it on purpose, and she proves, as an adult, a rather selfish martyr, someone who turns out to be extremely good at looking out for number one, especially with respect to her needs as a writer. “My daughters had to fend for themselves,” she says at one point (there are three of them; the youngest is 4, and the oldest is sick)— a circumstance that’s true at many points.

Lila, meanwhile, is virtually constituted by her inconsistency. Her home truths, so splendidly impregnable when uttered— [w]e weren’t made for children”—are only ever half-truths, the expressions of a mood that’s always gathering momentum for a swing. She even changes her mind, years later, about the identity of the man who fathered her son, as if it were a matter not of biological fact but of her own drifting preference. If it seems that anything can happen any moment in the cycle (another way Ferrante sustains dramatic tension), that’s because Lila is liable to make it happen, often through deliberate emotional violence that threatens to lead to masculine physical violence. “She was like that, she threw things off balance just to see if she could put them back in some other way.” Lila is an artist of people, just as Lenù is an artist of words.

But while Lenù’s character may be more stable, her will is not. Before we’ve gotten very far within the work, we’ve learned to disregard her periodic declarations and resolutions: to forget about her friend, to never be dependent on a man again. The novels are a long sequence of false turning points and false hopes (the reason that we often think we’re never getting anywhere): for Lenù, for Lila, for all the many characters. Some of this is simply the eternal mechanism of desire. Having gotten what you want—a man, a kid, professional success—­you realize it isn’t what you wanted after all, or any longer, or isn’t the perfection you’d imagined. But some of it is also time. The Neapolitan Novels are not a bildungsroman. As George Eliot transformed the Austenian novel of courtship by drawing out the story past the wedding, Ferrante shows us characters not only coming of age, but aging. The friends are well into their 60s by the time the story ends. “[W]hat had been important was important no longer,” we read about halfway through—a statement that would not do badly as the novels’ epigraph. Dreams deferred (politically, too), hopes disappointed, disillusionment, regret: The work becomes a story not of youth but life.

Also true to life is Ferrante’s sense of character and how it’s made. Individual psychology counts for a lot less with her than endowment and environment. While Lenù and Lila manage to surmount, at least in part, the circumstances of their birth, the boys and girls with whom they grow up (about half a dozen of each, the novels’ major minor characters) almost uniformly don’t. They are the way they are—stolid or stalwart or weak—because that is the way they were born. They do what their fathers and mothers had done, what the neighborhood tells them to do. The greater number end up crushed beneath their fate. The novels’ milieu is self-consciously backward— Lenù and the others are aware of living in a place that is behind the times with respect to the rest of Italy and the West—and the work’s aesthetic sensibility appears designed to match. We often seem to find ourselves in the world of Zola, of a grim Darwinian determinism that does not admit of choice.

Once we leave the neighborhood, how­ever, and especially the city, the presiding spirit is more that of Balzac. Lenù makes her way in the world in something of the manner of a 19th-century provincial, and so, even more, does Nino Sarratore, the tetralogy’s third most significant character. A figure of Balzacian complexity and ambiguity, he begins as an idealistic intellectual only to evolve into, or reveal himself as, a womanizer and social climber: ambitious academic, petty politician, scatterer of seed, and apex of many a love triangle. Like Lenù and Lila, Nino makes something of himself, but none of them do their self-fashioning just as they wish. All contend, in George Eliot’s phrase, with “tangled circumstance,” the impediment of other people’s wills. And not only their wills. The cycle affronts, at every turn, the contemporary creed of self-determination and, even more fundamentally, of metaphysical integrity, the idea that we are who we are and not someone else. The Solaras, the gangsters, Lenù thinks toward the end, “were, like it or not, part of us,” and so was everybody else within the neighborhood. Lila’s not the only one whose boundaries are porous.

* * *

Among the greatest forces in all of Ferrante’s work is atavism, the tendency to revert to your biological or cultural origins—or, to put it more precisely, for them to re-erupt within you. Another difference between a story of youth and a story of the whole of life is that when we’re young we’re able to pretend, not least to ourselves (Nino is exemplary in this respect), that we are something better than we are: something other than our parents were. But when parents die in Ferrante’s world, they tend to reappear within the bodies of their children, an inverse, demonic pregnancy. “Don Achille,” Lenù thinks about another camorrista, “was rising from the muck of the neighborhood, feeding on the living matter of his son.” Naples is a place of “blood” in both senses.

Lila, always worldly-wise, awakens early on to the existence of what she calls “before”: the neighborhood’s hidden history of injustice, oppression, and exploitation, of Fascism, monarchism, and gangsterism, which the grown-ups, “in order to live quietly,” have “placed a stone on top of” and thus unwittingly perpetuate. She vows, later on, to break the cycle, to remake the neighborhood for herself and her cohort—vows more than once, because everything within the novels happens more than once. Still later, having failed, she grows embittered, rejecting the very possibility of progress. The city’s Fosso Carbonario, an ancient place of gladiatorial combat, now the site of a church, becomes for her an emblem of human history: “underneath there’s blood and above, God, peace, prayer, and books.” Above and below, now and then, words and blood: Ferrante’s governing dichotomy.

But Lila, once again, is only half the truth. Lenù reflects on her daughters, now adults and living in America or France: “They all resembled me and none of them did, their lives were very far from mine…. The world has changed tremendously…. They have habits, voices, requirements, entitlements, self-awareness that even today I wouldn’t dare allow myself.” The juxtaposition of Lila and Lenù emulates the pattern set by Walter Scott, creator of the historical novel: two figures, one belonging to the dying traditional world but embodying its primitive vitality, the other moderate but modern, facing toward the future. In Scott, the former is mourned as the latter prevails. In Ferrante, the forecast, like everything else, is equivocal. The cycle’s end, in many ways, is deeply unresolved. The only certain outcome of the story is the story.

Scott, Balzac, Eliot, Zola: There is something perhaps deliberately atavistic about Ferrante’s own artistic methods, with their 19th-century resuscitations. If her characters exist so vividly for us, that is because they exist so vividly for themselves—their emotions, and the reporting of their emotions, unalloyed by modern self-consciousness or postmodern irony. Ferrante defies, by blithely ignoring, contemporary aesthetic fashion. Within the tetralogy, she implicitly rejects the figures (none of them writers and all of them men) who explain to Lenù why the novel must be this or that: “neo-avant-garde” or politically engaged and in any case very different from the kind of supposedly retrograde stuff that she, Elena Greco, writes. In The Paris Review, Ferrante states the case directly: “I think of literary tradition as a single, large depository, where anyone who wants to write goes to choose what is useful to him…. I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.”

But there is one thing that she does renounce, in a way that seems both very new and very old: her name. Like Lila, she deletes herself. The real self, she’s telling us, is inaccessible, an absence we can only know through someone else’s, some “Elena’s,” words. Celebrity is a lie, and autobiographical fiction a misnomer. There seem to be as many theories about the author’s identity as there are members of the Italian literary community, but nothing would be more disappointing than if someone stepped forward and said, “I am Elena Ferrante, and what’s more, it’s all true.” With wise self-protection and tactful self-suppression, she directs our gaze to where it belongs: the work itself.

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