It is not easy to describe the immense pleasure of entering through reading into an unknown and yet familiar world, the intensity of the feelings as the story unfolds, the irritation, when someone interrupts you, the need to go on reading, wishing to last a bit longer. All these feelings and much more were present while I was reading Elena Ferrante ’s Neapolitan Novels, in Ann Goldstein’s excellent English translation.
It is also hard to explain to someone who hasn’t read Ferrante why these novels are so powerful. On the surface, they look like a simple story of friendship and rivalry between two women. But it is not that simple. Countless times I stopped reading, or read the same sentence over and over again, marveling Ferrante’s unique and compelling writing style. Her story is so dense, intimate and sincere that she manages to fill the reader’s head with images so real that you almost forget that they are novels.
Elena and Lila, grew up together in a working class neighbourhood, in Naples, in a close system of conventions and expectations, where violence and brutality is rampant. Elena is blonde, plump and compliant, Lila is dark, thin, fierce, authoritative. Elena has an organised, insightful mind, Lila is terrifyingly smart, she is “like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Their bond is so strong that differences don’t matter. They continuously compete with each other, they love and hate each other, they help and harm each other, but they stay together linked by their past and their common suffering. It is an extraordinary and intense friendship that lasts until Lila’s disappearance. “She wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found, to leave not so much as a hair in the world”. says Elny ena.
The paths they follow are different. Lila stays in the neighbourhood, a small community which has its own language and recognizes as important only what belongs to the neighborhood. Elena escapes, she becomes a prominent author, but the roots are strong; her achievements are always in danger to be nullified by Lila’s and, by extension, by the neighbourhood’s authority. Despite the deep socioeconomic forces that transform Italy in the decades of 1970s and 1980s, it is hard and painful for a woman, to overcome the prejudices and erase her class origins, regardless of how far she will club the social ladder. “….. one writes to inflict pain to those who wish to inflict pain. The pain of the words against the pain of kicks and punches and the instruments of death. Not much but enough.” In this regard, the Neapolitan novels are deeply feminist books.
Elena Ferrante is the pen name of the Italian writer that has become a literary sensation with her tetralogy known as the Neapolitan novels. What her real name is, where she lives, what she looks like, are all unknown.