Uncovering Elena Ferrante’s Naples
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels track the friendship between two women as they try to escape the deprivation and determinism of their upbringing. One leaves Naples, the other doesn’t, but the city never sets them free
Photography by Aurélien Chauvaud
Elena Ferrante’s famous tetralogy, The Neapolitan Novels, was published in Italy between 2011 and 2014. Time has passed, yet the Ferrante mystery remains intact. Who is the person behind the pseudonym chosen as a tribute to the writer Elsa Morante (1912-1985)? Is it a man? A woman? A couple? When asked by a journalist if there was a commercial strategy behind this well-kept secret, Ferrante said, “It’s not my absence that generates interest in my books, but the interest in my books that generates media interest in my absence.”
We know that Ferrante is in her 70s, was born in Naples and now lives in Greece. Only her Italian publishers – Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzala of the publishing house Edizioni E/O – know who she is. (In 2016, a freelance Italian journalist, Armand Gatti, published an investigation in which he claimed that Ferrante is actually Anita Raja, a translator and former director of collections at E/O. Raja’s husband, the writer Domenico Starnone, was another name put forward, but both firmly deny that they are Ferrante.)
Translated into dozens of languages, the opus is a study of female friendship and rivalry. The sadism of Lila Cerullo, one of the two heroines, piques the curiosity of Elena Greco, the other friend, who narrates the series. Lila is strange and sometimes ill-intentioned but also has wonderful qualities. She is dazzling, inventive and adventurous. Elena is wise, shy and docile. In her 2021 essay collection In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, Ferrante describes her own writing style as a blend of the wild Lila’s temperament and Elena’s sensible qualities, calling it “double writing.”
How can an Italian woman born to a poor family after World War II take charge of her destiny and manage her hard-won freedom? That, perhaps, is the real subject of The Neapolitan Novels, even more so than female friendship. Elena and Lila grow up in a poor, outlying part of Naples – violent, though not squalid or rundown. The quarter is unnamed, but a number of clues point to Rione Luzzatti, an area of housing projects built between 1914 and 1929. One of the main questions the characters face is whether to escape the neighborhood or stay and endure the poverty and the aggression that regulate relationships there. Getting out is their goal, an obsession that is emphasized in every volume. Elena leaves; Lila does not. Both win their freedom, though in different ways. Ferrante’s work may belong to a literature of class defectors, but she doesn’t force the issue, preferring the implicit to the explicit.
Social mobility and geographical mobility are linked in her work, as in many other novels – Balzac’s Lost Illusions, for example. Of the two friends, it is Elena who escapes first and most often. She leaves for northern Italy, a destination that favors social ascension in Italy, where the differences between north and south are strongly marked. Lila remains attached to her father’s shoemaking business, tied to the dark, criminal side of the neighborhood where she was born. In the 1980s, the area, which has a high unemployment rate, is invaded by drugs. Lila’s brother dies of an overdose. She compensates for her inability to leave her city by giving herself permission to leave her appalling husband. By denying his authority, she finds herself in a financially precarious state, which she accepts. She takes on sole responsibility for her son, whom she adores and protects. She extracts herself from the moral order.
In the first of The Neapolitan Novels, the city’s geography is unclear; Lila and Elena are still children who know only their immediate environment and do not use the names of streets to find their way around. Crowded, noisy, bleak and filled with street vendors, Naples is the third heroine of My Brilliant Friend. It may be stifling and dangerous, but Lila and Elena are at home there.
Gradually, Ferrante pushes the boundaries of the story and takes her heroines outside their neighborhood. Streets, squares and monuments are named. As a teenager, Elena walks through the city with her father and discovers places she has never seen before. Father and daughter walk through Piazza Garibaldi while its train station is being rebuilt. Even the Japanese come to admire the work, points out Elena’s father, who is proud of his city. He shows her Piazza Municipio, the town hall, where he works, and the Maschio Angioino, also called Castel Nuovo, a 13th-century castle. Later on, the Posillipo district, one of the most expensive in Naples, is mentioned when a secondary character moves there. One day, Elena and Lila walk along Via dei Mille in a posh section of the city and realize how different they are from the rich girls they are seeing up close but who don’t even look at them. Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples, appears frequently in the tetralogy, portrayed as a sensual place to observe the metamorphosis of the human body. Elena is invited there two summers in a row and discovers the pleasures of sea bathing on Maronti Beach.
When My Brilliant Friend opens, Elena is a first-rate student, well-behaved and calm. Lila is restless and advanced for her age. She learns to read and write on her own in elementary school. When Elena discovers her friend’s gifts, she feels “down-graded,” overpowered by Lila’s talent. She nevertheless decides to follow Lila’s lead in order to escape her own family, especially her embarrassing, ordinary mother. At this point in the novel, the reader may believe that Lila will be the first of the two to escape from the slums of Naples. “Wealth became our obsession,” says the narrator. But Ferrante thwarts the reader’s expectations: at a time when education is reserved for boys, Elena’s parents allow their daughter to continue her studies, while Lila is expected to bring in money as soon as possible and never sets foot in a classroom after elementary school.
As long as they are children, they imagine that they will rise above their station and become rich by accumulating knowledge. They dream of becoming famous writers – Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women (1868-69), is their model. But while Elena learns Greek, Latin and English, and reads and writes extensively, Lila works in her father’s shoe shop. When she is 16, she marries a wealthy man who is feared in the neighborhood, realizing too late that he is in the Mafia.
Lila, trapped in Naples, follows orders from the Communist Party, which she has joined in a paradoxical attempt to emancipate herself. She escapes from her husband to save herself and her son, hides in an apartment that looks like a “dump,” endures a sordid daily life and gets a job in a sausage factory, where she has to bone meat, one of the most difficult and disgusting tasks. She later runs her own business, but she will never be prosperous, serene or happy. In her own way, Lila also changes, building a different life from that of most women of her generation.
The characters’ emancipation takes unexpected paths: Lila escapes from the patriarchal order that other women obey for fear of reprisals if they defy it, while the changes in Elena’s life are social and geographical. The third volume of the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, reflects the two friends’ seemingly dissymmetrical situations. Elena’s emancipation, however, is paved with disappointing and even painful experiences: “I thought the neighborhood was an abyss and that it was an illusion to think I could get out of it.” She wonders how to definitively “slam the door on the neighborhood.”
Elena is the author of a novel that has brought her a certain amount of fame. (It’s important to note that, through all of Ferrante’s work, including that which doesn’t belong to the Neapolitan series, she invents a writer. In In the Margins, she writes: “I am their autobiography just as they are mine.”)
Elena moves around but keeps her accent and always returns to Naples, to Lila, at least as long as Lila is there – the series ends with her disappearance. As soon as she is separated from her friend, Elena feels that she is betraying her – those who rise above their social status do not feel at home anywhere. Elena’s first stay in Ischia is an example of this unease, which Ferrante suggests to her readers without hammering it in: on the island, far from Lila, Elena feels lost. She literally wonders who she is. She cries, panics and returns to the city sooner than planned. Naples and Lila merge; they are her refuge, a vital reference point. A few years later, as a student, Elena obtains a scholarship to go to Pisa. Once she is married, she moves to Florence. In the two cities, although everything seems to go well and her daily life is more comfortable than it was in her childhood, she does not feel at home and leaves. Naples is her protector and a heavy weight at the same time, like a family that she fights with but needs desperately.
This essay has been translated from the French. It first appeared in Mastermind 13, available for purchase here.