I had begun to grow suspicious of novels. I’m interested in poetics, in subtle changes of mood and feeling—you read enough stories and the plots and characters start to feel too contrived, too obvious. My reservations about the novel were also due to a recent weariness with the heroic quest. At a time in my life where it is vital for me to read books by women—to find examples of how a woman might carve out a literary space of her own and write about her experiences—the epic novel remains a masculine territory, something I associate with the desire to document history, and claim it.
The Italian writer known as Elena Ferrante discusses this in the latest issue of The Paris Review: “As a girl—twelve, thirteen years old—I was absolutely certain that a good book had to have a man as its hero, and that depressed me. I devoured books at that age, and there’s no getting around it, my models were masculine. So even when I wrote stories about girls, I wanted to give the heroine a wealth of experiences, a freedom, a determination that I tried to imitate from the great novels written by men.”
Ferrante’s most recent works, the Neapolitan Novels, are the first time I have encountered an epic narrative in the classic sense that revolves around female ambition and friendship. Originally written in Italian and translated into English by Anne Goldstein, the series currently includes My Brilliant Friend, The Story of A New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. All three books have been widely celebrated in Italy and abroad, yet the author behind them remains an elusive figure. This has led, inevitably, to a rumour in the Italian press that ‘Elena Ferrante’ must be the pseudonym of a famous Italian male writer.
Beginning in the late 1950s with My Brilliant Friend and spanning decades, the on-going saga chronicles the lives of two women—Elena Greco, the narrator, and Lila Cerullo—as they struggle to free themselves from poverty and the past. Growing up in a working class neighbourhood of post-war Naples, Elena and Lila are both gifted from a young age and determined to escape their origins. Freedom appears in different guises as they grow older—an imaginary treasure chest of riches when they are children, a scholarship to University, marriage, love affairs, or a job that offers financial independence.
Although the books are told primarily through the recollections of an older Elena, Ferrante’s writing never ceases to feel urgent. Her sentences overflow with ideas, memories and anxious thoughts, and her depictions of casual brutality, sex and desire are bold and unflinching. If the Neapolitan Novels are a search for lost time, they contain no sentimental longing for the past: ‘I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,’ states Elena in the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, ‘it was full of violence.’
From the age of eight, Elena is fascinated by the fearless and fiercely intelligent Lila, who reads like a young female Heathcliff: all skin and bones, dirty and wild-eyed, with a fierce tongue full of Neapolitan curse words to ‘cut off at its origin any feeling of love’.
Their friendship is sealed by blood—the two form a wary alliance after a group of school boys begin to throw rocks at them (a punishment for Lila beating one of them in a class competition) and Lila is struck in the head. They soon form a bond based on their mutual desire to create: ‘I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together—only together—we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power.’ As young women, they are both each other’s rivals and muses.
Towards the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena, now living outside of Naples, laments the missed opportunity of a life-long collaboration with Lila: ‘We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other … The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable, I said to myself, it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition.’ It was a resonant moment for me. How many female artists have felt the loneliness of a lack of tradition, and have wished for an accomplice in that isolation?
After reading the three Neapolitan books back to back over summer, I am at a loss for what to do until the next one, The Story of the Lost Child, is published in English this September. Other stories now pale in comparison to Ferrante’s vivid cast of shoemakers, loan sharks, communist rebels, mothers and daughters, fascists and intellectuals. These novels have all the drama, romance and betrayal of an Italian telenovela, except that in Elena and Lila’s lives the personal is political. As the girls become women, the cultural turmoil of the era is reflected in every plot twist—the clash between communism and fascism, the student riots of the late 1960s, feminism and sexual liberation are inseparable from their coming-of-age. In this way, the novels are as much a portrait of an artist as a young woman as they are a picture of Italy during a turbulent time of social change and political upheaval.
I began My Brilliant Friend at the start of summer when I went on a beach holiday with my family, a good time to invest in a longer read. I read on the beach, then back in the city, on the way to work and even walking home from the bus stop. As Joshua Rothman wrote recently in The New Yorker, falling in love with a book involves all the stages of romance: infatuation, intimacy, identification and obsession. Ferrante’s writing not only commands reading but inspires devotion: by the time I reached the third book, I wanted to stay home on Friday nights to read.
I spent my summer inside Elena Ferrante’s world. Though my own was brighter and nicer, hers was more vivid, electrifying, urgent. As a reader, you come to understand why the fictional Elena can never truly sever ties with her hometown—even when she becomes successful and comfortably settled in a new city, she can’t resist the feeling that real life, in all its blood and urgency, happens in the neighbourhood.
Madelaine Lucas writes short fiction, essays and love songs. A recent graduate of the University of Technology Sydney, her writing has appeared in The Australian, Island Magazine and The Lifted Brow.Her piece, ‘Dog Story’, won the Overland/Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers.
24 Mar 15 at 14:05
Oh, I remember Dog Story. Made me cry, so yeah,thanks for that :–)
Thanks also for talking about this trilogy. I haven’t heard of them before and they sound just what I’m in need for that which ails me. I don’t know if I’m just not reading the right stuff, but I find myself writing either an extremely long short story or an extremely short novella at the moment which is full of political and systemic references, and it feels odd, as if I’m doing something wrong, as if writing in a female voice with female characters about those public elements is breaking some kind of rule, will be something publishers aren’t interested in touching, much as everyone blathers on about wanting to balance the score and have more women writers speaking to the zeitgeist, blah, blah, blah. Far as I can see the corporatocracy is burning our ship and we’re all being good little girls and boys playing along for the most part, scrambling for the gold shiny coins rolling around on the deck. It all feels so stiflingly conservative around here these days.
This trilogy sounds like just the thing to help give me some courage to keep writing. Speaking your truth is fucking terrifying, there’s no doubt about it.
06 Apr 15 at 21:58
Hi Sue, I feel like I’ve found all my favourite books at a time when I needed them most. I hope reading Ferrante provides some inspiration—these books definitely are bold, but I also never felt like the twists and turns of the plot were played for shock value. It’s a delicate balance, and I think this is part of why Ferrante is such a masterful story-teller. I was galvanised by the way she inserted herself and her story into Italy’s male dominated history and claimed it as her own. Reading Ferrante made me want to be a braver and more passionate writer. Happy reading!
16 Apr 15 at 11:53
Sounds quite perfect.
Only 11 more people ahead of me in the library queue! 😉