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The Greatness of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Walter G. Moss: Ferrante’s quartet is of epic proportions and deals with multiple family dynamics against a realistic background of social and political events.

Some 1700 pages of the four Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante (a pen name) have been gobbled down and commented upon by readers, especially women, worldwide. All I can add after reading My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015) is one man’s perspective and a few comparisons with the great novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Like them, Ferrante deals realistically with important subjects and does so in captivating, page-turning prose.

Elena Ferrante

The first pages of the quartet’s first novel begin with “The Index of Characters,” which includes the members of nine families, plus some teachers. It reminded me of the list of all the characters furnished in some of Tolstoy’s War and Peace editions. Like that famous book, Ferrante’s quartet is of epic proportions and deals with multiple family dynamics against a realistic background of social and political events. But whereas for Tolstoy the setting was primarily Russia in the decade and a half beginning with 1805, for Ferrante it is Italy, especially Naples, for about six decades beginning in the 1950s.

Ferrante’s quartet is also like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in its exploration of female psychology. The Italian author’s two main characters (from childhood to old age) are the narrator Elena and her best friend Lila (or Lina). Elena often tells us about her own motivations and what she is thinking, and it is through her eyes primarily that we see Lila.

It is not difficult to detect why Ferrante has such a wide appeal among women. Elena and Lila face many of the same problems that modern women have confronted in recent decades, especially dealing with their friends, love lives, families, and careers.

Although generalizations about gender differences are a risky business, I continue to believe there are considerable insights in books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992). For example, from it:

[For women] relationships are more important than work and technology. . . .

. . . Personal expression, especially of their feelings, is very important. . . .

Communication is of primary importance. To share their personal feelings is much more important than achieving goals and success. Talking and relating to one another is a source of tremendous fulfillment.

This is hard for a man to comprehend. He can come close to understanding a woman’s experience of sharing and relating by comparing it to the satisfaction he feels when he wins a race, achieves a goal, or solves a problem.

Instead of being goal oriented, women are relationship oriented.

On numerous occasions, and much more frequently than with men, when I have overheard conversations between two women in a coffee shop or restaurant, they are about relationships.

And relationships—family, friends, lovers, enemies—are at the heart of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. After a brief opening in which Elena talks about Lila, her friend of six decades, who is now missing, Ferrante takes us back to the early childhood of both girls. Elena tells us, “Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad.” We see them among their poor families—Elena’s father is a porter; Lila’s a shoemaker—in school, in their poor Naples neighborhood. “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.” Lila was not only “bad,” but she appeared to Elena, and others, as brilliant and fearless. In her psychological complexity and magnetism, Lila reminds us of Dostoevsky characters such as Raskolnikov (in Crime and Punishment) or Dmitri (The Brothers Karamazov).

Men, as fathers, brothers, lovers, and enemies, play an important part in both females’ lives. Lila marries at 16, but later has an affair and leaves her husband, and settles in a new neighborhood with Enzo, with whom she long maintains a Platonic relationship.

While Lila, despite her brilliance, only finishes elementary school (her parents not being willing to finance further education), Elena completes high school and university education without burdening her parents financially. Her earliest passionate affection is for Nino Sarratore, but he prefers Lila and has an affair with her even though she is already a young married woman. Dejected, Elena gives in to Nino’s father’s sexual advances. At her Pisa university, she has additional sexual experiences, but upon graduation marries Pietro Airota, who is from a well-connected intellectual family. They help her get a fictional work published, which she had written at university, thus beginning her successful career as a writer.

She has two daughters with Pietro. But after some years, she leaves him because Nino reappears in her life, and the two of them become lovers even though each is married and even though her friend Lila, who had an earlier affair with Nino, attempts to convince Lila that Nino is untrustworthy.

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At this point, toward the end of book 3 of the quartet, I am baffled, as I often have been in real life: How can women who are wise in other ways choose such lousy men? Although Elena leaves Pietro, who is a decent man, Nino is unwilling to leave his wife, even after he and Lila have a daughter together. Elena eventually realizes the true nature of Nino. She contrasts him with Lila’s devoted Enzo, “who with no hesitation would have sacrificed all his time to Lila’s needs,” but Nino “put first of all, always and only, himself, he didn’t give up an instant of his time.” On another occasion, she thinks that he is “sensitive to the approval of those who had authority and ready to catch out, or even, at times, humiliate out of envy, those who did not yet have enough of it.”

The main problem is that Elena does not perceive Nino’s faults soon enough, and she has a poorly thought out idea of love. A selfish person is the not one for whom she should forsake a loving husband and break up a family.

So what is love? How should we regard it? Superficially, it the stuff of TV soap operas or romance novels. But more profoundly it is akin to the way Dorothy Day described it in a 1938 autobiographical work. “Human love at its best, unselfish, glowing, illuminating our days . . . . Love is the best thing we can know in this life, but it must be sustained by an effort of the will. It is not just an emotion, a warm feeling of gratification. It must lie still and quiet, dull and smoldering, for periods. It grows through suffering and patience and compassion. We must suffer for those we love, we must endure their trials and their sufferings.”

Day realized that real love is far deeper and more complex than the type of romantic “love” that persuades so many people (including Elena) to act foolishly. Profound love is the greatest wisdom virtue, but romantic “love,” cannot be wise unless it is supplemented by a more encompassing understanding of love. (For a different perspective on love as perceived by male and female authors, see here.)

Unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, however, Ferrante does not attempt to depict a more positive, profound type of love. Not for Elena, not for Lila (who eventually splits with Enzo), not for any of the quartet’s major characters. Tolstoy ends War and Peace displaying the love of the married Pierre and Natasha, and Anna Karenina—which began with the famous sentence, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—ends with Levin and Kitty portraying a happier marriage than that of the doomed Anna Karenina. Neither of Tolstoy’s two masterpieces depicts what today might be considered an ideal marriage, and Tolstoy’s own marriage did not end happily, but at least when he was writing his two great novels he still believed that true love could be nurtured in a good marriage.

Dostoevsky’s depiction of positive love comes more from the monk Fr. Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov than from any of his other fictional characters. Dorothy Day once wrote, “Growth in love of brother, love of enemy, which goes on within us all, the very struggle to put off the old man and put on the new, was made easier by those words of Fr. Zossima which I have so often quoted, ‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.’” Sonia in her patience and faithfulness to the convict Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment is also an example of strong love.

Ferrante’s last Neapolitan novel, however, ends with neither Elena nor Lila having a loving companion. Elena undergoes some bad years before one last publishing success brings her some happiness. “Then came the bad years. My books sold less. I no longer had my position in the publishing house. I gained weight, I lost my figure, I felt old and frightened by the possibility of an old age of poverty, without fame.” At the very end of The Story of the Lost Child, Elena spends some time playing with her dog, reading the papers, and thinking about her lifelong friend Lila.

Families and family life were important to both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and they are to Ferrante. Throughout her four novels the families of the girlhood friends Elena and Lila are significant, but so too are lesser families like the Solaras, a syndicated crime family who dominate the neighborhood and whose sons Marcello and Michele interact prominently with Lila and Elena, especially Lila who often expresses her contempt for them. The Sarratores and the Airotas, the families of Nino and Pietro, also are prominent. After Elena and Lila have children, they become important to their mothers. After Elena leaves Pietro she struggles with the concerns of many single mothers like balancing her career (writing) with caring for her children. The title of the final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, also indicates how important one child will become, but readers can discover that for themselves.

Besides all the feminine issues dealt with so far, Elena herself becomes interested in feminism and writes on the subject. Ferrante has stated, “I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction, women’s literature—they made me an adult.”

But the quartet by no means limits itself to women’s topics. Elena’s struggle to rise in life, intellectually and socially, from her poor background is one with which many of us can identify. In the quartet’s third book she tells us: “Become . . . I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something—here was the point—only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”

Just as the writings of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy reflect much of nineteenth century Russian life, so Ferrante’s quartet tells us much about late twentieth-century Italian life, including its many political factions and organized crime. This is especially true regarding Naples. And like Tolstoy, Ferrante occasionally reflects on history and progress. Here is a passage from The Story of the Lost Child:

From there [Turin] it became simpler to reflect on Naples, to write about it and let myself write about it with lucidity. I loved my city, but I uprooted from myself any dutiful defence of it. I was convinced, rather, that the anguish in which that love sooner or later ended was a lens through which to look at the entire West. Naples was the great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation. To be born in that city—I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism—is useful for a single thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is reality a nightmare full of savagery and death.

But the tremendous success of the Neapolitan novels is not just due to their content. Like the great dramatic novels of Dostoevsky, which first appeared serially in journals, their pages beckon us with all the allure of the Sirens’ songs in The Odyssey. In a 2015 interview, Ferrante said, “I publish to be read. It’s the only thing that interests me about publication.

So 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 . . . . 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. As I was saying, what makes everything new and valuable is literary truth.” In creating page-turning pleasure that brims with truth she has certainly succeeded.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

Moss is the author of Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,(or online edition).