Introduction to Elena Ferrante

This is a preliminary post to pique interest and offer context - I’ll be writing about Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels here. If you know the books, my comments are in the last three paragraphs here; for background, most of this post is summary.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Elena Ferrante is one of the best working novelists. Granta considers Flaubert her only point of comparison. Other reviews have compared her books to hurricanes. Her books have inspired scholarly projects while winning popular acclamation. The general tone of reviews is that Ferrante sees more, further, and deeper than anyone else — and unlike the Modernists who pioneered that role for an author, she has turned her gaze on women, her combination of realist detail and emotional power going somewhere past where conventional knowledge is useful. Ferrante is a pseudonym; the author is completely anonymous and has never so much as made a public appearance.

Ferrante is famous for a quartet of novels, which I’ll call the Neapolitan novels. The first was published in Italy (her native country) in 2012 and English translations began appearing the same year. The final installment arrived only a few months ago. There are two central characters: Elena (the narrator) and Lila, who are introduced in the first book, L’amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend) as two very young, very poor girls in Naples in the 1950s.

Rachel Donadio in the New York Review of Books has a good introduction to these novels:

Like Ulysses, [Ferrante’s] Naples novels, in their own way, are epic in their scope and ambitions. The narrator of these books…is Elena Greco, literally Helen the Greek.
Her journey does not take place by sea; it is far more interior, revealed in…the long afternoons of childhood, girlhood, adolescence, motherhood… at their heart, the books follow the intense friendship and rivalry between Elena and [Lila]…from the miserable outskirts of Naples after World War II, through the economic boom of the 1960s and political turmoil of the 1970s, to the present day… The characters, like those of the ancients, are forever negotiating between destinies that might be prescribed from the outset and their own attempts to gain some element of mastery over their fates. [Naples is] the heart of the Camorra organized crime network, the presence of which lingers in these books like a fog, setting a social code with which everyone must in some way reckon…Ferrante’s Naples books are essentially about knowledge — its possibilities and its limits. Intellectual knowledge, sexual knowledge, political knowledge. What kind of knowledge does it take to get by in this world? How do we attain that knowledge? How does our knowledge change us and wound us and empower us, often at the same time? What things do we want to know and what would we prefer to leave unknown? What can we control? Who has power over our lives?

Donadio only hints at how packed the books are. Ferrante’s psychological insights are the main event, but they take place in rich and specific context. She follows Italian political, economic, and a little bit of literary history over a forty year period. The books detail mafia violence but also unrelated and hyper-intimate family scenes, some of which are disastrous and others touching. Ferrante is an expert on class habitus. The touchy dynamics among intellectuals, radicals and workers are covered extensively. Several families see their fortunes rise and fall and rise and fall over the course of the books — but it all seems related to the often painful tie between Elena and Lila.

Ferrante is unsparing in her study of gender, both with respect to self-perception and external experience, and she makes a point of including many sexual assaults and humiliations. Elena even becomes a feminist scholar and writer. Elena moves out of Naples; she and Lila both start families, which they leave, and both settle in with new families, which also end dramatically. They raise children separately, they work in different fields, deal with the mafia, fascists, Communists, and build extraordinary careers.

In conclusion, here’s a very rough approximation of the lens I’ll be thinking about when revisiting the books:

Donadio’s introduction is good, but I find her “essentially about knowledge” slightly unsatisfying. I think of the books instead as being about who people want to be, who they are, and who they can be. This has obvious connections to Donadio’s framing, but I think mine gets to the heart of the Elena-Lila relationship better. Lila serves as a sort of object, in a psychoanalytic sense, for the child Elena — she is the first outside force Elena encounters. She shapes Elena’s sense of the world and what is good in it. Lila, at times, confesses that Elena works similarly on her imagination. Lila is a force of nature. She is “living principle”, a genius, with seemingly limitless energy. Elena is studious and less bold, and, the books being told from her point of view, we often see the agony she feels not living up to Lila, whose intelligence and conviction she tries, constantly, to copy. Elena’s mother serves as sort of the opposite of Lila in Elena’s imagination: ending up like her mother would be the worst case scenario (failed, filled with resentment, limping). Elena’s central question often seems to be “Why aren’t I the person I want to be?”, and the reader feels the intensity of it in their own life. It would be hard to understand such a problem without feeling it, but also hard to understand it without being able to step back from it; fiction is a good way to approach it.

In addition to the hyper-individuated forces of friends and family, the neighborhood, its violence and poverty, shape the girls’ hopes. They internalize an alarming amount of their environment, even as it confuses them. Pressure is a good way to think about how Elena and Lila develop: they run into social rules and personal limits, like all of us. The glimpses they get of higher classes and political radicalism shape their ideas about how a good person talks, thinks, acts. Their internal lives are convincingly personal but Ferrante never lets go of their social field. Their identities are gendered, in ways subtle and grand, external and internal, forced and internalized. Ferrante acknowledges that we are active in making ourselves, but do not have unlimited power against what society made us or against what nature or God made us. We spend several decades with Elena and Lila as they are constantly “becoming”. It seems they do not even form their desires autonomously. At least not completely. Ferrante is not exactly a fatalist or determinist. As much as the events in Elena and Lila’s lives are products of circumstance, it is hard to ignore their intrinsic, most personal qualities as causes.

Philosophies and theories that dispose with freedom also dispose with responsibility and so offer a kind of absolution. Ferrante is made of sterner stuff. Choices matter to her. We come back to the question of who people are, who they can be, and who they want to be: there are uncountable moments where Lila or Elena feels that what they do will decide their future, and the pressure to act correctly is intense even for the reader. How, then, to understand yourself, when you are so clearly the product of family, gender and peer pressures but at the same time an agent, responsible for so many of the turns in your own life?