A Tale of Two Friends
Elena Ferrante's quartet, collectively titled The Neapolitan Novels should probably be regarded as one piece of work, as they no doubt in time will be considered to be. The four novels, written between 2011 and 2015: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of The Lost Child is the story, or narrative of Elena and her enduring and often combative friendship with Lila, the 'Brilliant Friend', we are reading one book or one work separated only by the four individual titles, the narrative of Elena is what carries us through more than 1600 pages, nothing interrupts the story to suggest it is anything other than one book or a four-volume book, maybe is how it should be treated, rather than a quartet.
First and foremost the novels centre around Lila's friendship with Elena - if it really can be called a friendship, as the narrator Elena spends most of her adult life trying to escape her roots and her symbiotic relationship with the feisty, hot-blooded and brash Lila – how friendships fragment over time and Elena's all-consuming need to escape her slum neighbourhood in Naples.
Ever since her early childhood years Elena has seen education as a vehicle and means of escaping her working class environment in Naples which is filled with backwardness and violence, the kids in the neighbourhood vie with one another to advance intellectually, who can attain the best and highest educational standards and the less intelligent kids get left behind. Lila is the brilliant friend of the first book: the girl who excels above all the others in school; she will go on to read Virgil's Aeneid when she is thirteen, she is teaching herself Greek when she has dropped out of school while Elena is studying it, she is way ahead; ahead of Elena, ahead of the teachers and Lila is learning Greek only so she can help her friend to be top of the class, she has given up on her own education, but not her friend's, it's as if everything that Elena achieves now will be through her: through Lila's tutelage. Elena, herself knows she must succeed in her studies in order to get out of Naples and to escape her working class backwardness, Lila on the other hand has decided books and study are no longer for her: she has condemned herself to being left behind, to the life she knows she might get away from but instead puts all her energies into preparing her friend for her development and advancement: her friend's future is her future.
The two girls were ten when Lila wrote her novel, The Blue Angel, when she and Elena, even then as pre-adolescents had planned to become rich and change their lives. The Blue Angel would make Lila rich but the idea and the book peters out and it seems that Lila no longer has an interest in her own development – even though her parents have fought her about her schooling and education, it is Lila's irrational mind-view that seals the lid on her own learning – everything now has to be channelled into how brilliant Elena is, how advanced and intelligent her friend has become.
We can gauge from the two protagonists that their own, individual personalities are psychologically fixed in their own determination: Elena to leave and Lila to stay. Elena knows that Lila will always be much better than she is: she is the more dominant, the stronger, the more intelligent, the stronger-willed of the two – Lila leads, Elena follows, but there is something more deep-rooted in Elena's psychological make-up: a parochial obsession not to inherit her mother's limp, which is an ever present motif throughout all four books, and in the background her family and Naples loom large: she mustn't end up like her family or like the people of the neighbourhood. Not only is she determined to escape her family, home, Naples, her mother's crooked gait but she wants to turn herself inside out and flush the old Elena out: her accent, Neapolitan dialect, the way she speaks, even if one person picks up on the old Elena Greco then she is backtracking, she hasn't succeeded. She is continually looking over her shoulder. Coinciding with her need to escape is her constant perception of herself as being in every way inferior to Lila and whatever she does her friend will or would always do it better: Lila is better because she is Lila and Elena will always be the less better of the two because she is Elena.
Lila, for whatever reason has to stay and remain a part of the working class Naples that she grew up in, she can't be or do anything else: she is loud, uncouth and doesn't even believe she belongs or fits into the world that Elena belongs to: the world of books, education and study. In truth, though Elena never truly leaves, not completely, Lila is a constant spectre in her life, the one that finally does manage to get away still feels she has to compete with her friend, even when Lila is working in the sausage factory and Elena has had her first novel published she still thinks that Lila is somehow winning: when Elena is writing her reviews of how her friend is being treated at the factory; the sexual exploitation, the harassment and poor conditions, it is Lila who overshadows the writer. Whatever Elena does Lila will always win.
How do you beat somebody who, whatever you do will always be better than you, somebody who can never be bettered no matter how good you are because you know she is the better person, you know even when she does nothing she can't be bettered? You get away, you escape; you build your life around your need to get away and break free and the whole psychological and moral premise of Elena's character is her desperation to escape: not necessarily her family, the environment of Naples but Lila and Lila's continual presence and indomitable influence.
Though the books are centred and weighted around the friendship of the two female characters: their growing up together and then growing apart together the Neapolitan novels are also about the character and background of the working class slum district of Naples and the denizens that live there and make the place what it is and how they shape the moral basis of a neighbourhood or town – although the only character we truly know from a psychological point of view is Elena: how we come to know the rottenness and the backwardness of the environment is through Elena's narrative, how she views the place, her relationship with Lila, and each character has his or her place, not all as three-dimensional as Elena or Lila, but they live through and are bound up within Elena's narrative.
From the first book as we are introduced to the two leading characters it is clear that Lila is the more daring, the more dominant and hot-blooded of the two as she leads Elena up the staircase to ask Don Achille Carracci for their dolls that they have both dropped through his cellar. He is the ogre of the town who has made his money on the black market and dodgy dealings and has known links to the Fascists. Don Achille is another example of how we grow up to imitate or parrot our parents: after he is murdered in the first book his grocery store is passed on to his son, Stefano, who, when he marries Lila (she is only sixteen) he beats and rapes her and Lila later says of him: 'Don Achille is in his breast, he is his father'.
Few characters want to turn out like their parents. Nino Sarratore loathes his father, Donato because of his treatment of women: he is sexually profligate, molests Elena when she is fifteen and Nino, an intellectual who is only really interested in politics and books – though he is known not to read literature – uses his political activism and knowledge and intelligence to bed all the women he knows, a committed Socialist he has all the hallmarks of his father's sexual instincts which Elena dreads might be borne on the son when she is in love with him while a young teenager, a love she can't escape from even when Lila is conducting her illicit affair with Nino.
Pasquale Peluso is the son of the carpenter, Alfredo, he is a construction worker and later becomes a Communist like his father and toward the end of the final novel we find him languishing in jail as a terrorist involved in the killings of the gangster-villains of the neighbourhood. Enzo Scanno is the son of Nicola, the fruit and vegetable seller, he later inherits his father's fruit and vegetable cart from his father before going into engineering and computers, he, like Pasquale is also a Communist. He believes in Lila and loves her implicitly, as do all the males once she hits adolescence: without being beautiful she has something that men seem to want and desire. 'If a man looks at her, instead of turning away as the other girls do she stares back teasingly. She has an appeal that is dangerous, she is now sexually alluring'.
Of the two girls it was Elena who first developed big breasts and became sexually potent and because Lila had little interest in sex and love matters Elena still couldn't excel her friend, she couldn't better her, it's as if, even if Elena has something that Lila doesn't she (Lila) negates that advantage by her own lack of interest. Lila has always been emotionally and sexually, intellectually cut off and set adrift. At 25 she tells Elena while living with Enzo that she doesn't like sex, so she goes to bed with him only to be held, even as a child when Pasquale told her he was in love with her she told him she would never have a boyfriend. Ever since she gave up wanting to learn and immersed all her energies into helping Elena to pass her exams Lila has blocked out all emotions and feeling, or since her marriage at sixteen to Stefano Carracci, since that is when she first started to die, she tells Elena.
She had been the brilliant friend who had written a novel when she was ten after reading Little Women and she had hoped to become rich by it and then she had designed and made the shoes with her brother Rhino to sell in her father's shoe store and she was going to have her own shoe factory and become rich, nothing could stop her, but Lila became coarse, uncouth and rude: her body and her flesh had taken over where her mind left off. Maestra Oliviero, her teacher told Elena, 'The beauty of mind that Cerullo (Lila) had from childhood didn't find an outlet and it has ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it'.
Lila's family are the shoemakers, the Cerullos and she has to fight her father, Fernando on anything that is important to her: her schooling and education, the shoes she made with Rhino, the proposed marriage to Marcello Solara, one of the feared Solara brothers whose racketeering and money and drug running enterprises buy the votes and help to prop up their Fascist patronages, Lila is morally aghast at a proposed marriage to one of the Solaras', a good business opportunity her father tells her, silvio Solara and his sons own everybody and so Lila marries Stefano and she has surrendered her life, she no longer wants anything out of life for herself.
The world covered in the four novels by Ferrante is not so much the world made up of the characters, how they live, how they love and how they deal with life and die (for those that do) but a world or town full of ignorance, violence and brutish behaviour. A world most of them can't escape from because their roots belong there; it could be any slum environment, anywhere in the world, in their wasted lives the characters are Chekhovian only swimming against the tide, they live in their own trapped heritage, but why does Elena keep coming back? Even after she has gone to live in Florence, in Turin, after her marriage to Pietro Airota, the brilliant professor who she had met at university. She probably never loved Pietro because she has always been in love with Nino Sarratore and always will be, no matter how many women he beds.
The Airota family that Elena Greco marries into – a family of intellectuals; a Socialist family who have long been known to support worthy socialist causes – Elena has escaped the world of Lila and the slum neighbourhood but she feels inferior to Pietro and his family of privileged intellectuals, Pietro is distant, emotionally and sexually conservative, wrapped up in his work, he neglects his wife and inevitably she falls into Nino's bed and then into his life until she finds out about his string of women, and Nino the ex-lover, Nino the socialist becomes Nino Sarratore, socialist MP, elected to parliament.
Since Elena's first novel was published – her novel, the truth of which, the story behind the book nobody knows about, when she allowed Nino's father, Donato Sarratore to kiss her on the beach and to penetrate her because she knew Lila would be having sex with her new husband and she had to have what Lila had, she didn't want to be left behind, so she allowed the profligate Donato Sarratore to take her virginity to get even with Lila or to somehow better her. Pietro knows nothing of his wife's life, the events that have made her what she is, as Lila doesn't. Elena's life and history is a closed book; nobody will ever know that Nino Sarratore's father is the man who took her virginity, nobody will ever know that he molested her when she was fifteen.
Pietro's sister, Mariarosa is the complete opposite to her brother. She has countless sexual partners, has regular sex with the political men she gets involved with, she has regular drug parties, despite her privileged education she usually puts the word 'fuck' before a noun and uses language like 'let's go fuck' with the men she brings home. Mariarosa exerts a powerful influence over Elena; her brand of feminism and female leftism provokes the writer-novelist to delve deeply into feminist literature as she questions the female role in society and consequently writes her second novel around such material. Mariarosa's political character can be summed up in a speech she made: 'Children shouldn't be given to any father, least of all God the father, children should be given to ourselves. The moment has arrived to study as women, not as men. Behind every discipline is the penis and when the penis feels impotent it reverts to the iron bar, the police, the prisons, the army, the concentration camps. . '
Mariarosa is the only Airota who doesn't treat Elena like an outsider; any person who champions a worthwhile Socialist or feminist cause is somebody to be embraced and welcomed whatever their background, whatever their education.
Elena, married to Pietro with her two daughters has escaped Lila, she is a published novelist, living in the middle class environment she has all these years aspired to, but she can never really be settled, never be sure of herself and Nino is the one reminder of the life she has not fully managed to get away from. She moves back to Naples as his lover, abandoning her husband and the Airota influence and now Lila is the one making all the money, earning the respect of the neighbourhood, Elena's family, Lila, now working for IBM with Enzo and somewhere in her twisted psychology Elena has to hold onto Lila as Lila has to hold onto life, as Elena says of her 'She was like someone who knows she has to drown but in spite of herself agitates her arms and legs to stay afloat'.
The force and intensity with which Ferrante writes pulls you in is like in a whirlwind, she doesn't stop for breath, she leaves nothing to be stared at or admired over but she gives you details, events, peoples' lives with a kind of force that is not so much novel writing as pouring words onto paper, she writes as if these events and characters' lives are taking place all at once, it is fast paced and like a train at full speed it drags you along. You read all four books and the characters stay with you long afterwards, it is life lived on the page; she writes as a writer who wants to be read, she does not dazzle us with stylistic embellishment or multi-layered structure, where the books succeed at their best is how the book carries the characters wherever Ferrante wants them to go, because we are talking about universal social issues and political themes that are the dominant motif: the poverty, the violence, the brutality of life, and everyone can go their own separate way or stay static and do nothing: Elena becomes the novelist but never quite feels she's made it, Lila decides to diminish rather than enhance her life chances, Pasquale, the Communist becomes a terrorist. They are books that say much more about the place their characters come from than the characters themselves, they should be read fast and furious without pause for thought because that is how the protagonists lived their lives, big or small and it is how we should think about Ferrante's Naples.