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.