DECEMBER 15, 2018
WHEN I READ Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, one after another, in 2015 and 2016, I was floored by the books’ political content, which helped me understand — to my great surprise — the fascist resurgence I was seeing in my own country. In coverage of the novels, all anyone had talked about was the friendship between their two Neapolitan protagonists, the intellectual narrator, Elena, and her difficult best friend, Lila. So when HBO announced it would adapt the books into a series, and promotional materials again focused on Elena and Lila and the producers’ decision to cast Neapolitan actors to deliver the series in Italian and Neapolitan dialect, I was afraid the network would miss an opportunity to televise some of the political lessons I’d gleaned from the books. But instead, in the first four episodes of My Brilliant Friend, the first novel’s politics have become more pronounced, have sprung to the foreground as the central propeller of the plot.
Because while Elena and Lila’s friendship is important, it serves a narrative purpose beyond itself. In Lila, tied by trauma and stubbornness to her Naples ghetto, and Elena, who escapes into comfortable liberalism through her dedication to her studies and to writing, Ferrante has crafted not only remarkable portraits of two women who make different choices among similar constraints, but has also used these characters as a storytelling device that roots the political history of late 20th-century Italy in the dynamics of a single Neapolitan neighborhood. And the stakes are high from the series’s first episode, because the labor organizing that comes to the fore in the tetralogy’s third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is the culmination of tensions that have been building, in the readers’ consciousness and in Elena’s, since the first page of their story, when the girls approach the doorway of the local loan shark, Don Achille. When the Carabinieri arrest an innocent man, communist Alfredo Peluso, for Don Achilles’s murder in the series’s second episode, and Lila has already begun to analyze the politics of the neighborhood, the series gestures forward to what I hope we’ll see dramatized in the third season — the moment in 1968 when the police crack down on union organizing outside the sausage factory where Lila works, with no repercussions for the local fascists brought in to beat the organizers.
In a rare interview with the Paris Review, Ferrante (appearing under a pseudonym, as always), reflects that “I felt Elena and Lila were alienated from history in all its political, social, economic, cultural aspects — and yet they were part of history in everything they said or did.” Indeed, dramatized even more explicitly on TV than in the novels, the apprehension of history is a central feature of the girls’ psychological maturation. While the novels move chronologically forward with a constancy rare for contemporary literature, the protagonists’ understanding deepens backward, into the past. In a scene that concludes the series’s first episode, the first novel begins with the two girls approaching the local loan shark, Don Achille, whom Lila has provoked by throwing Elena’s doll into his cellar. As they approach his door, bravely, to demand their dolls, Elena narrates a passage important enough that it appears, truncated, on screen:
Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us. When you haven’t been in the world long, it’s hard to comprehend what disasters are at the origin of a sense of disaster: maybe you don’t even feel the need to. Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now.
Don Achille’s money was made by loan sharking during World War II, whose aura of hazy atrocity haunts the beginning of My Brilliant Friend. But his legacy of greed and exploitation shapes the future of their Naples neighborhood, compounding with interest into the fascistic violence of the Solara family that develops in the later novels.
As viewers of the television series, we can see how the political analysis of exploitation that Lila cements in the third novel is already present in the series’s first episode, when a young Lila insists that Don Achille collects payments from her neighbors by stuffing them into his “black bag.” By the series’s explosive fourth episode, when the child actors of the first two episodes have been replaced by teenagers, a young Pasquale Peluso, son of Alfredo, begins explaining the neighborhood’s history of exploitation to an intensely curious Lila. In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the symbol of the chain begins to emerge, connecting local violence and exploitation to wider national, even global systems of the same. Writing from the old age from which she narrates all four books, Elena opens the third novel with a recognition that she has been unable to escape the dynamics of the neighborhood because, despite leaving, the violence of her past has emerged as “a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet.” Although Ferrante needs Elena to show us the extent and the contours of this chain, Elena realizes that, though she pretends to be the cosmopolitan one, it is Lila who “had understood everything since she was a girl, without ever leaving Naples.”
So it is that, “without ever leaving Naples,” Ferrante is able to depict the eruption of communist and fascist violence in 1968, through the leftist organizing and thuggish fascist crackdown at the Soccavo sausage factory where Lila works in the third novel. Absorbing much of the first half of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, using the same cast of characters we’ve known since the first book, Ferrante offers us a microcosm of the tensions that emerged in Italy in 1968, a year she never names. Specifically, she demonstrates how workers’ organizing for livable work conditions was met with violence from local fascist thugs, whose tactics were ultimately sanctioned by state forces, just as they were in the first novel when communist Peluso was wrongly arrested for Don Achille’s murder. In the third novel, after Lila delivers her colleagues’ demands to her boss, a cast of familiar “fascists, mostly from the neighborhood,” are invited to put down the organizing. As the fascists descend on the factory, through Lila’s eyes we see the chain of violence — of violent men — that extends through their communities, through their histories, through all four Neapolitan novels:
Fascists, as Stefano’s father, Don Achille, had been, as Stefano had turned out to be, as the Solaras were, grandfather, father, grandsons, even if at times they acted like monarchists, at times Christian Democrats, as it suited them. She had hated them ever since, as a girl, she had imagined every detail of their obscenities, since she had discovered that there was no way to be free of them, to clear everything away. The connection between past and present had never really broken down, the neighborhood loved them by a large majority, pampered them, and they showed up with their filth whenever there was a chance to fight.
Through the careful detail of the novel, always dramatized through the dynamics of Elena and Lila, Ferrante shows how fascism is rooted in economic exploitation backed by violence. And she taught me, more incisively than anything else I read, how political, capital-F Fascism emerges at economic inflection points when the powers of corporations and the state converge, step back, and allow local thugs to attack those who would challenge unequal socio-economic systems. After the conflict at the sausage factory, when Pasquale upbraids Elena for removing Lila from the situation and using her connections to get Lila’s back wages paid, Pasquale’s girlfriend Nadia exclaims:
The labor inspectors don’t count for anything, Lina. They went to Soccavo, they filled out their forms, but then? In the factory everything is the same as before. And meanwhile those who spoke out are in trouble, those who were silent got a few lire under the counter, the police charged us, and the fascists came right here and beat up Armando.
Nadia’s lines succinctly reflect what the Italians called the strategia della tensione, the strategy of tension, a maneuver whereby the government allows vigilante violence to erupt, then selectively punishes the corporate state’s own enemies. In the Italy of the late 1960s and early 1970s where this term originated, the strategy of tension was unleashed in response to the election of a communist government and widespread labor strikes. Explains the Socialist Worker, “fascist attacks and the threat of a military takeover were used to warn the Communists to stay within the confines of established politics,” and the left was ultimately blamed for “a series of fascist bombings.” But in Ferrante’s writing, we see this dynamic stretching in a chain all the way back to the first Neapolitan novel, when Peluso is arrested for Don Achille’s murder and in the series — more explicitly than in the books — Manuela Solara, the fascist who murdered Don Achille to take his loan sharking business, grimly smiles.
Reading these books in 2016, I finally understood what was happening in my country: the workers’ demands were escalating, so the bosses had let the fascists come out to play. In the decade of Occupy and intersectionality, we had found — between #Fightfor15, #BlackLivesMatter, #YesAllWomen — as Lila does at the sausage factory, “that the troubles of one department depended on the troubles of another, and that all together were links in the same chain of exploitation.” In the final novel, The Story of the Lost Child, Elena, now an established author, runs into her college boyfriend, Franco. After pressing him to admit what he disliked about her newest book, he finally shrugs and admits: “You did everything possible, right? But this, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels.” Of course, in the final installment of a literary tour de force, we can read this line as from Ferrante herself, and sarcastically. How else than a novel (or four seasons of an outstanding television show) to depict the complexity of power, how it reaches from a multinational fascist resurgence down into the depths of women’s private lives — into their blouses, into their beds? How the need for control and exploitation begins with capital but ends with sexual assault — or is it the other way around?
Does Ferrante offer any recourse to a society facing a rise of fascism? If she does point to solutions, they do not come from men; whether dealing with fascists or communists, the girls find that “you had to hide everything from men,” whose possessive and competitive compulsions only caused trouble. If anything, Ferrante offers glimpses of what can happen when women take responsibility for one another. Elena begins to grasp this, in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, when she is organizing with her sister-in-law, Mariarosa, and other local leftists. The night she meets Mariarosa at an organizing meeting, Elena ends up staying with her, and Elena, Mariarosa, and a young mother, Silvia, end the evening listening to two men bloviate, a situation Elena analogizes as “drowsy heifers waiting for the two bulls to complete the testing of their powers.” As Silvia’s baby begins to cry, Elena’s thoughts drift to Lila, to her analytical power, to a wish that Lila was there with her. Then suddenly, she recognizes how Lila would see the present situation.
I heard her saying: If you are silent, if you let only the two of them speak, if you behave like an apartment plant, at least give that girl a hand, think what it means to have a small child. It was a confusion of space and time, of distant moods. I jumped up, I took the child from Silvia gently and carefully, and she was glad to let me.
Lila’s genius — a genius shared by Marxists and novelists both — is her attention to the realities of material life, her refusal to be hoodwinked by abstract theories, her insistence on the observable complexities of the here and now.
Perhaps the complexity of material life is the reason why, in the last few years, I have learned more about leftist and antifascist political history from the novels of Ferrante, Isabel Allende, and John Steinbeck, than from any political treatise or tome. “Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest.” And adults, bloviating on television and in the press during Donald Trump’s rise, refused to interrogate the historical forces he was conjuring, as though opening a portal from the past to let the ghosts come through. In a national consciousness obsessed with the future, we blinded ourselves to the racism and economic exploitation that in shaping our history, were built into our present. As far back as 1892, Ida B. Wells understood the racial violence of lynching as a tool white business owners used to break Black businessmen and organizers, keeping Black communities available for extreme labor exploitation. In 2016, at a moment when a democratic socialist was pulling centrist Democratic politics ever to the left, capital wagered that, though Clinton was an unpopular candidate, they’d rather see Trump elected than Sanders, no matter the violent cost.
As a brilliant novelist, Ferrante’s writing is never pedantic, but roots politics and history in the emotions of the individual person — the choice to help, for example, or the choice to look away. If the climax of all four novels is the upheaval at the sausage factory, its emotional climax comes in the next scene, in a quiet moment inside Elena that, as a student of politics and of literature, continues to astonish me. Ruminating over Pasquale and Nadia’s criticisms, wondering if she’s done wrong or right, Elena makes the decision, in her heart, to detach. “Had I acted badly? Should I have left Lila in trouble? Never again, never again would I lift a finger for anyone. I departed, I went to get married.” In this moment of resignation, Elena makes a choice — the wrong choice. Faced with criticism she finds too difficult to bear, she decides, not to evolve, but to leave. For the real-life Ferrante, an author we will never know, Lila is a literary tool that ties bourgeois existence back to working-class realities — the realities of poverty, of exploitation, of sexual violence. If we can take any lesson from Elena and Lila, it is to stay connected to the Lila inside all of us — the neighborhood girl who refuses to abandon injustice — who chooses to stay, and to fight.
Tessa Brown is a lecturer in writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, and an organizer in San Francisco with the Rad Mission Neighbors. Her work has appeared in Hyperallergic and Harper’s, as well as in the academic press. Find her on Twitter @tessalaprofessa.