JUNE 1, 2019
WHEN I FIRST READ — no, devoured — Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend tetralogy in 2016, I loathed the narrator.
Elena Greco, or more commonly known as Lenù, is shy and adapting. I was more interested in Raffaella Cerullo, or Lila, who made scenes and called men uommen’e mmerd (literally “shit men” in Neapolitan).
I suppose my attraction to Lila made sense — I was going through a not-so-great time as a 27-year-old freshly out of a long-term relationship and as a woman in the United States on the brink of electing an openly misogynist, racist, and xenophobic president.
Like Lila, I was angry. And I was tired of being like Lenù. The world was changing. Enough with being patient.
Ferrante’s novels — My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Story of the Lost Child (2014) — are often described as “a tale of female friendship,” but that’s like describing The Beatles as “a band with many hits.” The four-part saga is so much more than that. It’s the story of Naples as it crawls its way back from the ruins of World War II. It’s an epic of Italian feminism. It’s a sociological study on violence, poverty, and gender — and the vicious cycle that connects all three.
But most importantly, for me, it’s about the definition of the self, as a woman. Or, more specifically, the quest and journey to define oneself — and how, for most women, that’s influenced by our relationship to other women.
In the books, men (and romantic relationships) come and go in Lila and Lenù’s lives. Even their careers and hobbies ebb and flow. The only constant is the bond that they have with each other — and themselves. Ferrante presents female friendship in a way that, for some reason, has rarely been done before: as a complex and tumultuous thing — the way relationships in real life tend to pan out.
But I was also attracted to Naples. It’s the birthplace of my maternal grandfather — who migrated to Argentina in 1926 as a child with his family after Benito Mussolini rose to power and the threat of fascism swept across Europe. Everything about the loud and chaotic mess of Ferrante’s fictional world felt familiar to me — whether as a distant memory inherited from my ancestors, or as a distinct memory of Buenos Aires as a child. In Argentina, we also yell when we have conversations or gesticulate when we order coffee.
So as I neared the dawn of my 30th birthday — an unnecessarily dramatic time for an identity crisis — I decided to hop on a plane and see for myself the colorful world of Ferrante’s books. It would be a chance to understand not only Lila and Lenù’s story better, but my own family’s as well.
The moment I step out of the taxi, I see the familiar faces: Maestra Oliviero looking down at a book, Maestro Ferraro sitting on a bench, two girls with shabby school uniforms holding hands.
“Welcome to the library,” says a smiling Maurizio Pagano in Italian, my tour guide for the day.
The faces staring back at me — except Pagano’s — are murals recently placed on the walls of a public library in Rione Luzzatti, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples where Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are believed to be set. They’re the actors from the HBO adaptation of the books; faces that, before the series premiered in November, would have meant nothing to me.
“The biggest mistake of the novels was mixing poverty with misery,” says Pagano, 50, who’s originally from Rione Luzzatti. He and another local writer, Francesco Russo, published a book, The World of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which chronicles the history of the neighborhood and draws parallels to the Neapolitan series.
“Ferrante didn’t treat us well,” he adds. “The novels portray the neighborhood as a dark, negative place. But we’re not like that at all.”
Pagano starts the tour — which he organizes so that fans can “really understand the novels” — by telling me that a lot of the characters in the books were based on real people: among them, Maestra Oliviero and Maestro Ferraro. The real-life librarian, Agostino Collina, founded the neighborhood’s library we’re standing in front of by supplying his own books.
And there was a girl, he continues, who was essentially a mix of Lila and Lenù. Her name was Nunzia Gatta, and like Lila, she would check out books from the library under her various family members’ names. But unlike Lila, and more like Lenù, she continued with her studies past elementary school — something rare for Italian women in the 1950s — thanks to her brother financing her education.
“Whoever Ferrante is must have known Nunzia well,” says Pagano, referring to the author’s anonymous identity.
“So she must have been from this neighborhood then?” I ask.
Pagano laughs, the kind of laugh that says they know something you don’t.
“We’ll get to that later,” he says as he gestures for me to keep walking.
Pagano greets everyone we cross paths with by their first name, stopping to chat and ask about how a certain family member or other is doing. They speak Neapolitan to each other, a regional language that somehow sounds more Italian than Italian itself. Its decadence is short and quick — as if every word were cut off.
He shows me all the must-see spots: the plaza, the staircase inside the apartment buildings where Lila and Lenù play as girls, the bridge that acts as the neighborhood’s unofficial barrier (in Rione Luzzatti as much as in Ferrante’s novels). Surprisingly, the places look relatively close to how I’d imagined them — or maybe by now, my mind’s reconstruction of the novels has been blurred with their portrayal in the HBO series.
(Interestingly, Ferrante one time declined to conduct an interview with her publishers in the “neighborhood depicted in the Neapolitan Novels” because, she said, “places of the imagination are visited in books. Seen in reality they may be hard to recognize; they are disappointing, they might even seem fake.”)
As I’m about to ask Pagano if the books’ popularity has influenced tourism in the neighborhood, a bus full of high school students parks and starts unloading.
“Another city tour group coming for five minutes to walk around and then leave,” Pagano says under his breath. He seems frustrated, and I can understand. No one likes to have outsiders explain your own home to visitors.
“Rione is the epicenter of Ferrante’s novels,” Pagano tells me. “You have to truly understand this place in order to understand the story. You have to talk to the locals. You can’t just come, see the church, and head back to Naples.”
We continue into a pastry shop, which he introduces as “the Solara’s bar” — after the fictional family that runs an underground mafia ring in the Neapolitan novels. When we walk into a second coffee shop, he makes the same joke. The bartenders — mostly women, contrary to the books — laugh and roll their eyes when I order my coffee decaf.
I ask Pagano if, since the teacher and librarian were based on real people, the loan-shark character of Don Achille or the mafiosi Solara brothers were also based on people that once walked the streets of Rione Luzzatti. Pagano denies it, and says the neighborhood never had a mafia there.
“The Solaras didn’t exist,” he says. “The only truth behind the novels is the positive stories.”
He tells me that maybe Ferrante had a different relationship with Rione Luzzatti than he did. People can have different perceptions of the same place, he adds.
I respond, in my broken Italian, that perhaps Ferrante took ideas and inspiration from various places and experiences — and put them all together into one place. In this case — in Rione Luzzatti. After all, her novels are fiction. But my argument is too complicated to get across in my limited grasp of the language, and as Pagano nods and keeps walking, I’m not sure he’s completely understood.
We pass by the office of a family-run furniture business and meet 72-year-old Fulvio Natale, the patriarch of the company. The first thing he asks, when he finds out I’m a foreigner touring the neighborhood, is if I’ve read the Neapolitan novels.
“Of course,” I say.
“Well, Rione is nothing like that,” he answers, almost defensively. “There were three rich people in town in those days, but they were all benefactors giving back to the neighborhood.”
Pagano laughs and looks at me, “See? And we didn’t even need to ask him.”
It’s easy to believe them — the neighborhood is full of that characteristically warm Mediterranean sun on the day I visit. For some reason, I had imagined Lila and Lenù’s neighborhood as gloomy, with a sort of gray haze constantly hanging above it. As if the dusty aftermath of the World War II bombings had yet to dissipate into the atmosphere. But of course, this is the south of Italy — one of the sunniest places in the world.
And the streets are fairly empty. It’s late morning on a Friday — children are at school and many adults are at work, presumably in the center of Naples. There are no teenagers hanging around, wasting time.
It seems to be, as the two men tell me, just another Italian neighborhood.
But Pagano’s love for the novels — and his neighborhood — is palpable. His frustration with certain negative portrayals of Rione Luzzatti doesn’t seem to take precedence. He says Ferrante captured something essential of their growing up there.
“She told the story of our childhood,” he tells me. Although Pagano is relatively younger than the novels’ main characters — who would be in their 70s now — he says he too used to play with his toys along the buildings’ air vents, like Lila and Lenù when they threw their dolls down Don Achille’s basement.
“But how do we know that the books are really based in Rione Luzzatti, and not just another Neapolitan neighborhood?” I ask Pagano. The location is never mentioned in the novels, except for some geographical hints, like its proximity to the train tracks.
Pagano smiles. He has me stand in front of the church, then pulls out his phone to show me photos of the set of the HBO series. The church they recreated is the exact same one that’s in front of my eyes — even the inscription in Latin is the same.
“If anyone doesn’t think it’s Rione, they’re crazy,” he says, laughing.
Leaving Ferrante’s world — or, a sunnier version of it — I felt I needed to know more. I wanted to talk to other people who had lived through Lila and Lenù’s time; maybe Ferrante had been influenced by other parts of Naples, by other stories and other people.
I met Nino Esposito, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood close to Rione Luzzatti, at the other end of Naples. The 80-year-old seems younger than his age as he climbs some rocks with me on a beach with an incredible view of the city’s bay and the Vesuvius volcano peaking out from behind.
“Of course there were mafias,” Esposito says when I ask about Ferrante’s portrayal of the neighborhood.
“I’ve been playing soccer my whole life, and I used to even go to Rione to play,” he says. “I’m talking about the 1950s, ’60s. Some of the players would disappear for days, because they were arrested for mafia-related crimes. But then they’d come back.”
There were others, still, that would not return. He says he would find out later that they had been shot and killed, presumably by other mafia members, or perhaps the police. He laughs as he tells these dark stories; I assume the ridiculousness of it all eventually gets to you when you grow up with this reality.
Esposito says he couldn’t put Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels down when he first read them. He’d stay up until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning and would lose sleep over them.
“It was a trip to the past, reading those books,” says Esposito. “Nothing was exaggerated, life was really like that.”
Even Lila and Lenù not seeing the Mediterranean Sea until they’re teenagers is accurate, he says. It sounds ridiculous now, but back then, people just didn’t leave their neighborhoods. And if you lived far from the port, you simply didn’t interact with the sea.
Esposito says there was endemic poverty during those years. He was young at the time of the war, but he remembers sirens going off and hiding in basements. He watched people survive off of scraps of bread and says that to this day, he never throws food away.
And the violence that the novels’ female characters face at the hands of their husbands and fathers was also real, Esposito says.
“The only thing I would say was a little extreme was when Lila was thrown out of a window by her father,” he tells me. “But even that could have been possible.”
His reflection of life in working-class Naples is different from Pagano’s; at first, I think maybe it’s their age difference, or perhaps the specific neighborhoods. Then I think about what Pagano himself said: that we all relate to the same places differently. Maybe Pagano is a romantic.
My great-grandmother, Emma Egg, who had a disappointingly non-Italian name, was 21 years old when she married my great-grandfather, Mario Palumbo, in the late 1910s. Of course, this was before the era of the Neapolitan novels — my great-grandmother was of the same generation as Lila and Lenù’s parents. The girls’ mothers had no education, no control over their own lives. It was exactly the world Lila and Lenù were trying to escape as they defined themselves as women, and refused to be defined by others.
But my great-grandmother, known to the family as Nonna (or “grandmother” in Italian) had a vastly different experience than that of Lila and Lenù’s mothers. She was born into a wealthy family, and later lived with Nonno and their four children in the city center — there were no dark bridges that separated her world from the rest of civilization, and there was no secret about what the Mediterranean Sea looked like. Nonna had a view of the glistening blue water from her very own apartment.
But regardless of money and education, Nonna still had no say over her future. In 1926, as Mussolini’s power as prime minister had become more dictatorial, Nonno decided that the family would leave Naples for Argentina, where they had distant family members that would help them get on their feet. Nonno had fought in World War I and barely survived — he saw trouble rising with Mussolini and other fascist leaders in Europe, and didn’t want his children — especially his sons — to go through what he did.
The family would leave, no matter what Nonna thought. She died in 1981, never stepping foot in Naples again. I think of her as I sit on a bench close to the apartment they left behind in 1926 — a great-grandmother who exists in my life almost as if she were a fictional character. The only interaction I will ever have with her is through other people’s stories — definitions of her constructed by others. Lila and Lenù would have hated for their stories to be told this way.
I wonder if Nonna ever thought a great-granddaughter of hers would ever visit her hometown. I look at the towering figure of the Vesuvius, which has a huge presence all over Naples, as if it were constantly watching over. It must have been the last view of home Nonna saw on her way out.
One of the things Pagano told me during our tour of Rione Luzzatti is that he doesn’t see Lila and Lenù as two separate people. He sees them as one person.
“They represent the two sides that we all have: the one that dreams but is afraid and the one that’s fearless and takes chances,” Pagano tells me.
In an email interview with The New York Times in 2014, Ferrante said that while all her books “derive their truth from my own experience,” it is Lila and Lenù together that best capture her.
“Not in the specific events of their lives, nor in their concreteness as people with a destiny,” she goes on to say, “but in the movement that characterizes their relationship, in the self-discipline of the one that continuously and brusquely shatters when it runs up against the unruly imagination of the other.”
When I first read the books, the yin-and-yang of Lila and Lenù as characters brought out something personal for me: I had too much Lenù, and not enough Lila. I was unbalanced.
Lila is an endlessly interesting character — in the first novel, Lenù describes her as someone who “took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.” There’s something about Lila’s unapologetic personality that attracted me to her — her brashness, her fierce intelligence, even her anger. I was curious about living life in such a fearless way. I wanted to be her.
Lenù is also intelligent, but in a softer way. She constantly doubts herself, as a teenager especially, and compares herself to Lila, who seems unfazed by people’s judgments. Lenù is afraid to say what she really thinks, for fear of how others will react.
Then a friend pointed out the obvious: I didn’t like Lenù because I saw myself — or what I disliked about myself — in her. I had reached a point in my life where being like Lenù — understanding and patient, ambitious but fearful — had kept me from fully becoming, well, me.
But three years later, I found myself in Naples, alone. And it helped me see something that I hadn’t caught in the time since I’d read the books. After all, change can only be seen in hindsight. It’s impossible to know the aftermath of a thunderstorm while you’re still being pelted by rain.
In early 2017, I moved to Barcelona to take my chances as a freelance journalist and writer — something I had been wanting to do for nearly a decade, but had been putting off because going alone sounded scary. Now, I’m traveling often, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied, sometimes for work and sometimes for fun, to many places, within Europe and outside. I’ve learned to not stay silent. I’ve probably called a man or two uommen’e mmerd, at least under my breath.
Being in Naples was like suddenly being on the other side, smelling the wet earth and watching the menacing clouds finally pass. I recognized, as the ever-present Vesuvius guided my thoughts, the weight that Ferrante’s fictional character had had on me. Almost three years ago, I was raptured by the force of nature that was Lila, and made a conscious effort to embrace her.
Turns out, I had both Lila and Lenù inside me after all.
Banner image by Max Dawncat.