What happens when the most ambitious rethinking of the politics of realism in recent memory can’t be attached to a face? (Can they give the Nobel Prize to a pseudonym?) Now that the Neapolitan tetralogy is complete, it’s clear that Elena Ferrante’s decision to remain biographically unavailable is her greatest gift to readers, and maybe her boldest creative gesture. Her intransigence has protected these books from the ambient noise that threatens to engulf any truly original cultural artifact: the vaguely bullying blurb delirium (The Story of the Lost Child comes prefaced with seven pages of it); the debate over the cheesy pastel covers; the reports that Knausgaard fans and Ferrante partisans are brawling in Park Slope.
Who really cares about any of it when the books are so sheerly interesting? Ferrante’s inaccessibility to public consumption feels designed to help her books survive whatever storms of silliness are kicked up by the enthusiasm they have sparked. Her self-erasure is more than a challenge to the celebrity logic of contemporary literary culture. It has meant that readers are forced—are free—to confront these novels in all their unassimilable intensity. To paraphrase the most pitiless sentence in the final installment: we’re going to have to resign ourselves to not seeing her.
Readers who’ve been overwhelmed by these books will not have forgotten that the series itself is premised on another self-erasure: the narrator, the 66-year-old writer Elena Greco (known as Lenù), opens the first novel in 2010, recounting the apparent disappearance of her friend Raffaella Cerullo (Lina or Lila) from the face of the earth. Lila has long spoken of a desire to vanish, and now she’s clipped herself out of old photos, taken her clothes and belongings, and told no one where to find her. In a mood of angry retaliation (“We’ll see who wins this time,” she tells herself), Lenù sits down to write the history of their lives, starting from their face-off as children in a working-class neighborhood in Naples in the early 1950s.
That first encounter serves as a compact emblem of the psychic tangle that will define their relation: the girls exchange their beloved dolls only for first Lila, then Lenù, to promptly throw the other’s down through a forbidding cellar window. The moment seals a kind of marriage between them, one that seethes (like many such bonds) with resentments and silences. But this one is more ferociously devoted, and more durable, than most marriages. Lenù’s very name for her friend bespeaks ownership and rivalry: Raffaella is universally known as Lina, but Lenù has only ever called her Lila, in a gesture that asserts a best friend’s exclusive rights even as it insinuates an additional consonant’s worth of distance between them, as if to stave off a threatening convergence.
The first three novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) brought the women to the edge of middle age with an almost necromantic completism. Ferrante conjures what feels like every significant moment of these women’s lives with a notation of scene and situation so rapid as to seem almost subliminal: you can’t exactly say how the books convey the casual violence of the neighborhood or the details of Lila and Lenù’s schooling (every grade level passed is a white-knuckle affair, laced with parental doubts about the utility of learning, especially for girls), or how Ferrante juggles her ever-growing cast of family and teachers, neighborhood thugs and lecherous bosses, student activists and union organizers, lovers, teachers, predators, publishers. Lila’s transformation from a precocious and gawky child to an unnervingly charismatic young woman, the disastrously early end of her formal education and her miserable marriage to a local shopkeeper, her awful job at a sausage factory, the intellectual restlessness that irritates her like an untended wound—all of this flies by in counterpoint to Lenù’s upward trajectory: by the end of Those Who Leave she has completed her education and abandoned Naples for Florence, published two well-received books, married an academic from a politically influential family and left him for an ambitious intellectual she has adored since childhood.
What gives unity to the rush of events is Lenù’s sense that Lila’s is the more genuine intellect, hers the more authentic relation to body, mind, action. Lenù’s most persistent fear is that her achievements are pallid reflections of the acumen that vibrates almost painfully from Lila. But this suspicion never settles for long into anything as predictable as competition or envy; Ferrante volatilizes every social and emotional situation. In a thrilling scene toward the end of The Story of a New Name, Lenù, just having published her first book, visits Lila on the floor of the sausage factory. She has convinced herself that she wants to thank Lila for her inspiration, to confess that what’s best in the novel derives from their friendship. Lenù comes, in other words, half in bad faith, and Lila senses it.
Reeking of offal and shrugging off the complaints of her supervisor, Lila launches into a relentless, apparently left-field account of the new world of computer programing in which she’s become immersed in the hours after work. Lenù is crestfallen—but rapt, too—to find her friend’s correspondence course–derived obsession with early digital technology more riveting, even to Lenù herself, than her own authorship. But Lila’s revenge is, as ever, also an invitation: “She was explaining to me that I had won nothing,” Lenù writes, “that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.” The Neapolitan novels offer the truest account I know of the telluric hum of being in the presence of a challenging mind, the shaming, tensed pleasure of trying to keep up.
As The Story of the Lost Child brings us closer to the present, Lila’s disappearance looms, taking on new shades of meaning as we approach it. We learn, for example, that the aggression of her quasi-suicide is not entirely without motivation: one of the revelations in the final book is that Lenù has, in 2007, published a kind of précis of the saga we are reading, a short novelization of her and Lila’s lives entitled A Friendship—ignoring Lila’s repeated injunction that Lenù never write about her. Published at a moment when Lenù feels ignored by Italy’s culture brokers, the book is conceived, and succeeds, as the kind of late-career “return to form” that the literary market eats up: she finds herself on the best-seller lists, talk shows, course syllabi. A Friendship represents Lenù’s desire for conventional success at its least appealing, and she knows it: “I hate it,” she says of the book.
In light of this betrayal, Lila’s hostile vanishing emerges as another move in their long game—even, improbably, as a recommitment to that game—and it radiates a weird grace. The Story of the Lost Child ends with a suggestion that if Lila is gone, she is not dead—and is determined to remain in Lenù’s life as a watching presence, a kind of energy of pure spectatorship. The women’s most constant vocation has been to think about and observe one another, and so it is as if Lila has discovered a way to render that relation permanent by removing it from the details of phenomenal life. “As usual,” Lenù writes, “she was taking on the job of sticking a pin in my heart not to stop it but to make it beat harder.” The Neapolitan novels are Lenù’s countermove, a retraction of A Friendship that attempts to do their relationship justice, and to keep their game going.
If Lila were to read these four books, what would she find? The dialectic at the heart of the women’s relations—every action summoning a countervailing one—suggests a larger mystery about the novels themselves. What is it about these books that makes them so addictive? Everyone who likes them concurs with the Guardian’s opinion that “nothing quite like this has ever been published before.” Beyond that, there’s little agreement: anything you say about them seems immediately contravened by its opposite. They appear to have poured out of the author in a rush—but their architectonics are stunningly intricate. They’ve earned comparisons to Balzac and to Italian neorealism for their dense verisimilitude—but Ferrante can also be startlingly spare with detail (it’s not until the third volume, when Lenù’s northern fiancé visits her in Naples, that we learn that the entire Greco family sleeps in the living room: Balzac would have gotten a chapter out of that). Is Ferrante “the best angry woman writer ever!” (John Waters)—or is her work possessed of an “animating warmth” (Dayna Tortorici, in n + 1)? Are the Neapolitan novels a “tiny, intricately drawn world”—or an “epic that encompasses issues of loyalty, love, and a transforming Europe”? Rarely has such universal agreement about the quality of an aesthetic object coincided with such variation of opinion about what in fact it’s like.
In Ferrante we see what grand novelistic ambition looks like devoid of writerly vanity.
Disconcertingly, Ferrante seems to have scripted these discrepant reactions for us. In The Story of the Lost Child, when Lenù publishes her third book, she reports that “there were many positive judgments, but often in sharp contrast to one another, as if the reviewers hadn’t read the book that was in the bookstores but, rather, each had evoked a fantasy book fabricated from his own biases.” The Neapolitan novels likewise feel engineered to make us reconsider our criteria for good writing. Ferrante, in translator Ann Goldstein’s rendering, at times writes colorlessly (“It was an extraordinary experience,” or “They were complicated years,” or “How exhausting our relationship was”), the better to set off her swerves into more abstract, turbulent registers—as when, toward the opening of the last volume, Lenù reflects that “only [Lila] can say if, in fact, she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links, to unhook others without letting it show, to say more of me than I want, more than I’m able to say.” The bland sentences lull us into thinking we know what kind of novel this is, and then the path veers abruptly onto more demanding terrain. The effect is to cast a backward glow on the more straightforward sections, which now seem to radiate trickier meanings.
Perhaps the rule Ferrante violates most triumphantly is the injunction to “show” instead of “tell.” A novelist who titles a book My Brilliant Friend sets up a daunting hurdle for herself: how to convince the reader of the intelligence in question? A more conventional writer would have Lila deliver virtuosic arias of braininess. Ferrante goes for what should be the least effective method for conveying Lila’s brilliance: she describes it. “Separating us was only a layer of floor,” Lenù writes of a period during which she and Lila are living in the same building, “and yet she could shorten the distance further or expand it according to her mood and convenience and the movements of her mind, which shifted like the sea when the moon seizes it whole and pulls it upward.” The sentence captures the mythic proportions of Lila’s intelligence, along with its quality of seeming both a power she wields and one from which she suffers (read the words once and Lila appears to possess the force of the tides; read them again and you see that her mind is at the mercy of the moon’s ruthless gravity).
Elsewhere, reflecting on a conversation in which Lila has elliptically referred to the changing realities of the neighborhood—the local Camorrists have moved into the drug trade; a childhood friend named Alfonso is sleeping with one of the more menacing thugs—Lenù conveys in jangling clauses the effect of her friend’s words:
Out of restlessness, out of weariness, out of choice—I don’t know—Lila had slightly widened the net of her conversation, and I realized that even if she hadn’t said much she had filled my head with new images. … I felt all the fascination of the way Lila governed the imagination of others or set it free, at will, with just a few words: that speaking, stopping, letting images and emotions go without adding anything else. I’m wrong, I said to myself in confusion, to write as I’ve done until now, recording everything I know. I should write the way she speaks, leave abysses, construct bridges and not finish them, force the reader to establish the flow …
I tried to expel images of voluptuous penetrations between men, of needles in veins, of desire and death.
It’s been more than a century since Henry James claimed that intellectual realization in fiction should be as exciting “as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate.” But it’s hard to think of a writer since him who’s made writing this discursive feel so immediate.
Here too, of course, Ferrante has it both ways: when necessary, she can deftly “show” the disorienting power of Lila’s gifts. Immediately following the women’s unsettling conversation about the evolving neighborhood, the ground literally begins to shake. It’s November 1980, and they are caught indoors during the Irpinia earthquake that killed nearly three thousand people. (The pathetic fallacy’s correlation of psychic states and natural phenomena is another aesthetic no-no Ferrante casually redeems.) Both women are frightened, but Lila’s terror is cosmic in nature. When the ground stops moving, the words begin to spill out of her, as if the tectonic shifts have confirmed her vision of an instability at the heart of things, a sense, as she puts it, that “there is always a solvent that acts slowly, with a gentle heat, and undoes everything, even when there’s no earthquake.”
Lila reveals that she lives with a constant effort to retain psychic control over the world’s boundaries, lest everything collapse into a pile of undifferentiated matter. The exhausting labor of world-maintenance she describes makes her sound like some unholy amalgam of Richard Serra and Homer’s Penelope: “I always have to do, redo, cover, uncover, reinforce, and then suddenly undo, break. … The fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night.” Lenù tries to comfort her friend with platitudes, reassuring her that “the world has returned to its place.” Lila’s compact, vertigo-inducing response: “What place?”
That line concludes a chapter, and its disquieting resonance is enhanced—maybe even constituted—by its isolation on the white space of the page. That fact in turn underscores Lenù’s own artfulness, and points us to the realization that Lila’s brilliance is in a sense a coproduction—the result of Lila’s expressive power and of Lenù’s ability to perceive it and to give it form. Most of the chapters in the Neapolitan novels are just a few pages long, and virtually every one of them ends on a moment of suspense or sudden reversal, with surprises ranging from the minor to the cataclysmic. In books that can fool you into thinking they’re casually made, wholly given over to what Lenù at one point calls “the disjointed, unaesthetic, illogical, shapeless banality of things,” these constant chapter breaks serve as omnipresent reminders of Lenù’s shaping labor.
The three books Ferrante published before the Neapolitan series (Troubling Love, Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter) are each tightly constructed novellas of middle-class women who fall out of the grooves of normal behavior after some destabilizing event (a mother’s death, a marriage’s failure, a chance encounter on a beach). The recent books hugely expand that representational scope but sacrifice none of the early novels’ taut, fabular quality. The very object world of the Neapolitan series is governed by a dense, dreamlike choreography. The dolls Tina and Nu; the story Lila writes as a child and titles The Blue Fairy; the stylish Cerullo shoes she designs a few years later; the ominous red book in which Manuela Solara guards the neighborhood’s financial secrets; Lenù’s mother’s bracelet; Lila’s journals: these objects ricochet through the temporal and spatial expanses of the novel, each of them becoming a totem of Ferrante’s patterning as it shifts in and out of view.
It’s important to the effect of the novels that these are perfectly ordinary objects. Like Flaubert’s barometer in Roland Barthes’s famous account, they furnish the novelistic world; they say, “We are the real.” Barthes labeled such objects bulwarks of a regressive ideology and argued that the “goal today” (he was writing in 1968) was to destroy their comforting solidity. Ferrante’s objects, like so much else in these books, follow a logic of both/and, confirming Barthes’s analysis and leaving it behind: they start as anchors of the novelistic world but then, like household items shaking loose in an earthquake, become enchanted—with the result that we longer know quite what the real is, or how to feel about it.
Ferrante’s revivification of realism might be the novels’ most surprising achievement. Barthes’s essay predicted the imminent demise of the realist aesthetic; like many of the millenarian pronouncements of the period, this one proved premature. Reading the uncharacteristically militant conclusion to “The Reality Effect” today, it’s easy to feel that realism has had the last laugh—even to feel that history is itself a realist genre. The Neapolitan novels sometimes seem to corroborate this verdict. There is a tough scene late in The Story of the Lost Child in which Lenù’s grown daughters leaf through the books she’s published, seizing on and reading aloud their more dated formulations. It’s not pleasant: “Countless times I had anticipated redemptive changes that had never arrived … I had stressed certain themes: work, class conflicts, feminism, the marginalized. Now I was hearing my sentences chosen at random and they seemed embarrassing.”
Lenù’s own judgments of her generation’s aspirations can be even harsher: reflecting on the humiliating compromises she makes to stay with an increasingly untrustworthy lover, she says that “I quickly resorted to big words about the world to come: everything is changing, we are inventing new forms of living together, and other nonsense of the sort that I myself uttered in public or wrote.” Later, it’s not just new sexual arrangements or new words she disparages but newness itself: the only thing Naples has taught her, she claims, is that “the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.”
Such brutal assessments can make the Neapolitan novels seem perfect illustrations of what Fredric Jameson calls realism’s “inherent conservatism and antipoliticality,” its commitment “to the density and solidity of what is.” And yet none of Lenù’s dismissals is quite what it seems. Her daughters may make Lenù ashamed of the language in which she came to her feminism or her Marxism—and Lila too scoffs when, in the mid-’70s, Lenù starts reading books with titles like The Clitoral Woman and the Vaginal Woman. But Lila’s description of her exhausting labor of boundary-maintenance resembles nothing so much as the unwaged domestic work described by the theorists she derides. And both women do in fact invent new forms of life, with men and with each other and with themselves, that would have been unimaginable to their mothers.
Just as strikingly, Lenù’s line about “savagery and death” turns out to be, precisely, a line, a sentence that sounded right to her at a certain moment: she tells us that she “went so far as to write [those words] once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism.” Ferrante’s revelation that Lenù’s vehemence is partly a posture somehow does nothing to undercut her narrator’s seriousness, or her intelligence; some of the most exciting moments of the novels occur when Lenù offers multiple hypotheses to explain events, or tries out various rhetorics on them. In Those Who Leave, after a bruising phone call in which Lila confesses to disliking her books, Lenù claims not to know whether “it was an exalted moment of our friendship or one of the most wretched.” Elsewhere in that book, remembering a heated discussion in the wake of May ’68, she writes that “I had certain formulas in my mind, I combined them with false confidence. I said more or less that I was puzzled by the development of the class struggle in France, that I found the student-worker alliance for the moment very abstract.” Neither the justice of the revolutionary outburst nor the severity of Lila’s judgment is diminished by Lenù’s confusion. Ferrante has found a way to countenance the uncertainty of our explanations without slighting the events that give rise to them.
The addictive quality of the Neapolitan novels on which everyone agrees may finally derive from their unequaled sensitivity to what it feels like to be in and with history.
One way to gauge Ferrante’s originality here is through comparison with the US’s most illustrious practitioners of the big historical novel, where rhetorical certainty reigns supreme. Think of Franzen’s cerulean warbler, its migratory path from West Virginia to Colombia neatly semaphoring Freedom’s ecological and geopolitical stakes, or of the waste systems in DeLillo’s Underworld, whose sublime toxicity connects Jersey and Kazakhstan to more or less identical effect. These impressively executed conceits leave little for readers to do other than sit back and be impressed while the exposition gets going. The last way you might respond to these emblems of systematicity is by thinking about what they mean: pretty clearly, they mean that the world is connected, and that it’s screwed, and that we’re in the hands of a prodigiously gifted storyteller—all inarguable points. In Ferrante, by contrast, we see what grand novelistic ambition looks like devoid of writerly vanity. When her novels point to the largest political and ethical scales, as they do, the gesture is fascinatingly equivocal, as if to thread a question about our access to those scales into the emotional texture of the writing.
Twice, Lenù imagines that Lila is engaged in projects of world-historical significance: in Those Who Leave, she fantasizes that Lila has murdered her exploitative factory boss as the first step in a program to turn Italy into “a Vietnam in the Mediterranean,” to “hurl us all into a pitiless, interminable conflict” that will “spread throughout Europe, throughout the entire planet.” And, near the end of the final installment, Lenù imagines that her friend’s nocturnal walks through Naples will issue in “an enormous project” that will represent the city “in its entirety … a permanent stream of splendors and miseries, a cyclical Naples where everything was marvelous and everything became gray and irrational and everything sparkled again.” It’s a tribute to Ferrante’s conjuring of Lila’s gifts that neither fantasy seems entirely absurd in the moment it’s articulated. In the end, Lenù remains unsure, as do we, whether Lila “could have held crowded rooms fascinated” or whether she is a “barely educated woman of fifty” overcome by grief and anger and whiling away her time with pointless research.
The “realist” answer—of course Lila is not heading up a branch of the Red Brigades; of course she is not composing some neo-Viconian masterwork—only accounts for a fraction of these episodes’ power. These fantasies are emblems of the obscurity of the everyday and of the rage to overcome it, and through them Ferrante makes the difficulty of our hold on the systemic the stuff of high intellectual and emotional drama. If Lenù at times tries to make her friend into a symbol of some final structure—some position behind or above the screen of events—Lila emerges more powerfully as a force of pure historical immersion. Time and again, Lila ushers the new into the world: it is she who points out the presence of African languages on the streets of Naples, she who notices that one of their childhood friends who was born male would be happier living as a woman, she who introduces the words “heroin,” “Chernobyl,” and “IBM” into the narrative, and makes those words not only audible but comprehensible.
The addictive quality of the Neapolitan novels on which everyone agrees may finally derive from their unequaled sensitivity to what it feels like to be in and with history—sometimes in anticipation, often in contempt or fear, always with excitement and attention. “What time is now, what time was then,” Lenù writes in Story of the Lost Child, giving us no grammatical clue as to whether to read the words as a statement or a question. The point seems to be in that disorientation. Rarely has writing this uncompromising about the destructions of the past been so exhilarated by the openness of the present.