THE BENEFIT of writing about a critically acclaimed book a month or so after other reviewers have done their acclaiming is that one doesn’t have to “review” the book at all but can instead reflect upon the sensation it’s created. If you have turned to this page, more than likely you have already read several — even a dozen — reviews of Elena Ferrante’s famous quartet of Neapolitan novels, the last of which, The Story of the Lost Child, has recently been published. Probably you have also read about Ferrante’s decision to remain anonymous, turning her into “the global literary sensation nobody knows,” according to the title of one article. Or of the prizes she cannot be awarded, because she won’t show up for them, or of the tiresome speculations that she is “really” a man. (Because no woman could bear to forego so much attention?)
All this commotion threatens to overshadow the novels themselves, which Ferrante has said should be read as one novel, and which are not, actually, sensational, except in their writing. They begin with Elena and Lila, two smart, restless, imaginative little girls growing up in postwar Naples. Elena is our narrator; her obsessive interest in Lila, her best friend, remains central over the next 50 years and for 1,600-plus pages. Which are barely enough to contain her morass of feelings about Lila, a shifting quagmire of rivalry, idolatry, resentment, dependence, sexual and intellectual competition, sympathy, love, loyalty. All undergirded by their connection to the violent, emotionally labyrinthine Neapolitan “neighborhood” where they come of age, which Lila never leaves and to which Elena, after “getting out,” returns.
The words “morass” and “quagmire” are not rhetorical flourishes. Simply reading through the “Index of Characters” at the front of each book (it’s five pages long by the time we reach the fourth) is a convoluted experience, as we attempt to keep straight the porter’s family, the shoemaker’s family, the carpenter’s family, the mad widow’s family, the murderer’s family, and so on. It’s worth trying to master all those names. From these archetypal “families,” identified by probably hereditary professions, or by their tragedies or criminality, which will forever shape their descendants, comes a single, singular neighborhood family, with far stronger claims on Elena and Lila than their own siblings and parents. Though not, importantly, stronger than their claims on each other.
The two girls grow up almost within each other, at least in Elena’s case. She can hardly walk down the street or read a book without thinking of what Lila might make of it. Lila is, in Elena’s eyes, the brilliant one (the title of the first novel is My Brilliant Friend), more creative, beautiful, capable, resilient, and, when crossed, coolly vindictive. For her, an “eye for an eye” often means an arm and a kneecap, too, plus a couple teeth. But she is also poorer, and it’s Elena who manages to stay in school and, by grinding perseverance, earn a college degree, marry into an intellectual Florentine family, write a series of admired novels and articles, and become the “brilliant” one. All the while believing that she’s a cheap copy of Lila, the real thing. Lila, meanwhile, marries a grocer from the neighborhood while she’s a teenager, runs off with Elena’s first love (whose intellectual trajectory mirrors Elena’s own), gets pregnant, returns to the grocer, leaves him again, lives with another man from the neighborhood, works in a meat factory, becomes enmeshed in local union struggles and in fighting with a pair of Camorra-type brothers (also from the neighborhood), and helps found an early computer business. She dedicates herself to trying to preserve the neighborhood from being destroyed by crime and drugs, and is destroyed herself in the process. Elena, meanwhile, though depicted as almost entirely self-interested, dedicates herself to preserving Lila.
There is no conventional plot. Ferrante follows Elena and Lila through the dailiness of their adolescence and into their romantic relationships, motherhood, and work and political lives. Some reviewers see them as two halves of female creativity — the actualized versus the potential — or as inverse sides of the feminine psyche. Others view them as sisters in arms, struggling against the hostility and brutality of a male-dominated culture, or use them to ponder the line between fiction and nonfiction in these clearly autobiographical novels. One reviewer insists they are a Faustian pair, with Lila as the “genius demon.” But the real astonishment of this long, digressive, unclassifiable narrative is its portrayal of the dynamic experience of a close female friendship. A friendship, as registered through Elena, that changes page by page, sometimes sentence by sentence. And the question Ferrante finally forced me to ask is how that experience, in fiction, could feel so exalting.
Two of my kitchen drawers have been unintentionally dedicated to clutter, and whenever I consider cleaning them out a terrible lassitude falls over me. So much has been crammed into them, of varying value: corroded batteries, rubber bands, keys to forgotten locks, refrigerator magnets from local businesses, duct tape, tiny screwdrivers for repairing eyeglasses, slightly melted birthday candles, loose toothpicks, nails. The same exhaustion creeps over me as I contemplate describing the relationship between Elena and Lila. It is such a bewilderment of stuff. They have, at different times, the same lover; they take on each other’s children; they lie to each other, tell each other the truth, deplore and admire each other, and they’re both caught in the internecine mess of their birthplace. To pull out any drawer from any stage of their lives is to confront chaos. However, it was while looking through one of my own muddled drawers that I came upon this quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, clipped from a newspaper review of a book I’ve long since forgotten and stuck inside a menu from a Chinese restaurant, which has helped me understand why Elena is so focused on Lila, and what gives these books much of their power:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
Alone amid that truly infernal Neapolitan neighborhood — always engulfing its residents in betrayals and schemes — Lila is not inferno. She is tremendously cool; she has terrific equipoise. She is always “narrowing her eyes” and seeing clearly what others are too distracted or confused to see, usually some kind of corruption. Meanwhile, Elena, like most of us, is impulsive, self-pitying, self-doubting, always scrambling and striving, and usually at the mercy of whatever is happening to her at the moment. But she has the wit to recognize that Lila is a different kind of creature, and she has the ability, as an artist, to give Lila “space,” to have her endure over all those pages, so that we can recognize it, too. Structurally, Lila holds these books together like the chimney of a house — everything else might burn down, but the chimney remains.
That fixed emotional structure is Elena’s continued fascination with Lila. No matter what happens between or around them, Lila remains a complex human being Elena knows intimately, considers obsessively, and yet is forced, again and again, to accept that she hardly knows at all. In this friendship, Ferrante has dramatized the most essential fact of human relationships and human suffering — we are utterly mysterious to each other, and yet most of us rarely bother to notice. Frankly, who has the time? Because if you were really to think about an old friend, for example, someone you have known since childhood, and loved and resented, fretted over and neglected, as is so often the case with old friends, it would take you 1,600-plus pages to capture your “true” understanding of her.
Which is, simply and incredibly, what Ferrante has tried to do in these four novels. She has charted, as precisely as possible, the shifts in one person’s feelings and perceptions about another over time, and in so doing has made a life’s inferno recede even as she captures its roar. No one has written a book like this, certainly not about two women (and it’s hard to imagine a man sustaining this kind of fascination with a male friend — Nick Carraway is absorbed by Gatsby, yes, but for less than 200 pages). The intense appeal of the Neapolitan novels is the intimacy they provide as we follow Elena and Lila’s involvement in each other’s lives, even during their periods of estrangement. I’ve heard several people claim they can’t bear to read the final book, because then “it will be over.” What they mean, I think, is that they have fallen in love with the drama of deep friendship, almost as if it were a friendship of their own. Except what exists between Elena and Lila is far more fully examined, and fully realized, than anything outside of fiction.