The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante’s four-piece masterwork, is rightly the literary sensation of its time. The epic narrative, sweeping over decades, gallivanting across the life of a neighbourhood – a city – a country – an epoch, rummaging through the lives of the two protagonists, a pair locked in an inescapable lifelong bond, a bond formed in a childhood’s fear and wonder, the narrative grips and tears the reader along with it. In our company Elena and Lila grow from girls into women, they explore, they age; we are with them as they blossom and as they fade away. Raw human emotion burns through the loves, the betrayals, the hopes, tragedies, and disappointments of these beautiful women. Along the way, Ferrante does what all great writers do, and once she has you within the warm embrace of her novel, she moves you, she touches and caresses you.
And then, in between the second reading fiercely demanded, now a third, and if only for a while at least, life outside of her Naples, her Italy, feels clearer, the contours of reality sharper, crisper, and she does it by fudging our understandings, our beliefs, our selves.
It is brutal of course, but so is life. A hopeless, violent neighbourhood lurks in the background – soaked in a heavy, leaden, kind of poverty, the kind that nobody ever truly leaves behind – it exhausts the dreams of youth, exchanging them for dead eyes and track marks. The neighbourhood is a place where escape is rare, its dangers fitful and sudden, shadows dancing in the candlelight. And Ferrante tells it all bluntly. In calm, unobtrusive prose we read a wedding night rape, a sixteen year old given over to a life of routine unhappiness. Vicious beatings. We perch in the corner of the room watching this young girl, Lila, crawling across the carpet on hands and knees, crumpled helplessly under the fists of a once gentle lover. A man turned into a beast by the need to be a man. As this man-beast, the real man, stalks over his wife, the girl, through swollen lips and blood-stained teeth, smiles at her silent, gaping toddler, ‘daddy and I are playing, we are having fun’.
But life is not only brutal, and neither are the four-pieces of this elaborate jigsaw. There are the brief glimpses of burning passion, the dazzling hopes invested by both women in a vain and shallow hearted man, hopes we always know can only end in betrayal. There is the mundane. Be it disappointing, unfulfilling sex in the form of Elena’s husband’s laborious, aching, orgasms. And sex, Lila can do without. Motherhood too is unsentimental in Ferrante, children can disappoint, they get in the way. When they don’t, and cue the title of the last installment, they can break your heart.
The soul of this tetralogy is a cast of neighbours, friends, acquaintances. An elaborate, intricately woven web of characters gradually eaten away by time. Fading from the picture, they lose their shapes, perhaps briefly returning as shadows of somebody we once knew, but only to fade finally into the dust, overwhelmed – or rather, in the final reckoning, underwhelmed by life. Perhaps we find them dead, alone, in a shit and piss covered train car with a needle still in their arm. Or, simply, they might just clutch their chest, gasp in one final gulp of the neighbourhood, and then keel over.
This story is confronting, it is ambiguous, it escapes at the very point when you feel you may have captured it, it exceeds just as it reduces, and more than anything it embraces. It is about masculinity, feminism, vulnerability and strength. It is about freedom, In Ferrante’s world, life is a struggle to break free, to win the right to create oneself, a struggle which can never be completely successful. The neighbourhood, restricting social expectations, poverty, ignorance, violence, life is full of traps to escape. In the end this novel is neither here nor there. It is reflective, and it is powerful because it feels like life, and it shows us just enough of ourselves, just a glimpse. And we should listen when Ferrante tells us that ‘unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.’