Learning from Elena Ferrante: The Neapolitan Novels
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have taken the world by storm. Rarely have critics worldwide been so uniform in their praise of any books. In July 2017, the first of the quartet, My Brilliant Friend, published in English in 2012, still held the number two position in the print top ten books published by Text, and all four are listed in its top ten Ebooks. In 2016, Time Magazine listed the author as one of the one hundred most influential people.
I came to the Neapolitan novels late, because I usually prefer to focus my reading on Australian writing. But in the last few weeks, shortly before a long trip through Italy, the time was right. The novels should be read in sequence. Indeed, the Neapolitan novels – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child – are such page turners that once you begin, the characters and their fates won’t let you go.
For those wanting to write, the Neapolitan novels are a brilliant example of theme, character and voice, and authenticity. The series is also a great example of structure, both in each of the novels and in the series as a whole.
Theme as a unifying force throughout the series
Elena Ferrante places a strong emphasis on theme, and as readers of this blog know, I am always bowled over by an author’s adept handling of one or several significant themes.
At their core, the Neapolitan novels are about the friendship between two girls who become women: Lenù, or Elena – the pseudonym first name adopted by Ferrante –, and Raffaella, or Lila. But because we follow Lenù and Lila from childhood in the late 1950s to mature age in 2010, the novels are also, and more importantly, about womanhood, the human condition of women: in first love, marriage, betrayal, pregnancy, motherhood, the balance between work and children, personal ambition and success. As Elena and Lila become aware of the oppressive forces seeking to constrain them, and as they strive for a life that gets them out of poverty and is better than that of their mothers, they adjust to and grapple with tradition, religion, family, patriarchy, and the social and political order, including the Neapolitan Camorra criminal organisation. And all these social and political contexts and how they oppose them, cope with and shine in spite of them, are central to their individual development, their search for identity, and the fluctuations in their friendship.
Through her two lead characters, Ferrante explores psychological, philosophical and political questions, as well as the complexity of female friendship, which may include pain, jealousy, envy, competition, non-comprehension, as well as love, in a deeply analytical fashion.
Character and Voice
The novels use Elena as first-person narrator, and consequently it is her voice that we ‘hear’. Elena’s primary concern as the fictional author of these four novels is to throw a light on all these social and political forces which govern Italy and, more crucially, women’s lives. As a logical consequence, the novels show little sign of beautiful prose and evocation of place.
Because Lila is Lenù’s best and brilliant friend, and because Lenù analyses all events from Lila’s perspective as well, Lila’s is also a dominant voice in the series.
Both Elena and Lila are amongst the most unforgettable characters you will ever encounter in literature. As a result of Ferrante’s focus on the fluctuations in their friendship and on their struggles against the social and political forces that constrain them, both jump off the page, especially for women readers who may have fought similar battles.
But wonderfully, Ferrante has also cast the same analytical and psychological eye on the secondary characters who are part of Elena’s and Lila’s lives and most of whom live in the same neighbourhood. As Sunil Badami wrote perceptively in The Australian,
“Every character, even the most marginal, encapsulates the gamut of human experience and emotion, and provokes the same vast range of often contradictory responses, from frustration to sympathy and everything in between. They’re as complicated as their incestuous, internecine relationships with each other, and by the end of this deeply involving, completely affecting story, you’ll feel you’ve known them all your life.”
Writers are often told that they should draw on personal experiences and the emotions they gave rise to in order to achieve authenticity, a sense of truth, in their writing. And Ferrante has done this. She told Jennifer Levasseur for an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald that she “write[s] in order to recount an experience,” and explains her choice of giving her narrator the same first name as her pseudonym as wanting “to be Elena, the author, and Elena, the narrator. In this way I tried to keep all of my experience on the page.”
She told Sandro and Sandra Ferri in an interview for The Paris Review that in her writing she draws on “fragments of memory” such as “childhood places, family members, schoolmates, insulting or tender voices, moments of great tension. periphery of Naples, where I was born and grew up. I had in my mind cries, crude family acts of violence I had witnessed as a child.” You’ll find both interviews here. And that probably explains both why the Neapolitan novels feel utterly authentic, as if you were reading the author’s memoirs, and why there was such a quest to identify her true identity.
In London, an adaptation of the novels by April De Angelis into a two-part, five-and-a-half-hour play has been staged to great acclaim, and an adaptation for the screen is reportedly in discussion.
And finally a warning: two friends, both avid readers, gave up on the series because they couldn’t get into the first one, My Brilliant Friend. If that should be you, or happen to you, too, persevere, as I did, and you will never regret it.
Because of my imminent trip to Italy, I will not be posting on this blog for at least the next three months.