I just started reading the second of Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan Novels,” so I should say a few words about this first one before my memories of it fade. All the NYRB types freaked out so hard about these books that I figured I’d give them a whirl, and I enjoyed this first one very much, though I guess I don’t see quite what all the fuss is about. Well, I take that back, I think that the rationale for the fuss is that there’s so little fussiness in Ferrante’s style. We have here an exceedingly rare thing, a contemporary novel with a near-religious respect for realism and simplicity, without a formalist or stylistic flourish in sight. There’s a moment, about two-thirds through, where the narrator Elena is talking about the prose style of a letter from her friend Lila, and she goes on, quite movingly, about Lila’s pellucid prose, and then you suddenly realize that its Elena’s own pellucid prose that you’re reading, or rather Ferrante’s, and that right there is really the most engaging drama of this text, the drama of experience clearly expressed. Nothing particularly fascinating happens to either of the two main characters Elena and Lila. They’re bright aspirational girls bound by socio-economic situation designed to keep them stupid and stationary. Promises of escape come in many forms — industriousness, education, marriage, sin, social climbing — but the implicit message of Ferrante’s simple and elegant style is that being able to see, understand, and express your situation and your self clearly is probably at once the most viable and most powerful means of transcendence available. Sure, I’ll buy that, and so I bought the next three volumes and I look forward to them.
I’m getting ready to teach my “Uses of History” class this fall, where we read literary works which incorporate or respond to historical events, so that’s on my mind as I read anything and everything these days, and I’ll say I’m a little disappointed by Ferrante’s superficial engagement the historical circumstances of her characters. We get some small allusions and references, but surely the political and economic confusion and energy of postwar Italy could seep into the narrative a bit more.
There’s a nice big rabbit hole of reality v. representation to go down with these books, if you’re into that sort of thing, thanks to the fact that the author writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante and has not made her (or, unlikely but possible, his) identity known. So you have a budding writer (Elena Greco) for a narrator, and the author (Elena Ferrante) is herself a character, and one of the main dramas of the story is that Elena Greco deeply suspects that her friend Lila, who’s abandoned her education in favor of marriage, is actually the better writer. Is this an autobiographical novel or an entirely fictional one? We don’t know. So who is the titular brilliant friend? The author’s friend Elena Ferrante, the persona in which she writes brilliantly? The author’s “friend,” her brilliant character and perhaps avatar Elena Greco? Lila, Elena Greco’s brilliant friend of whom she is so jealous? In a lovely twist, we find out late in this book that the phrase originates with Lila to describe her Elena. Fun to think about — I’ll be interested to see how these dynamics play out in the other books.
Edit 7/28/16: Having surveyed the entirety of this large canvas, I come away not thrilled or delighted or amazed, but mighty satisfied and faintly suspicious. I’ll explain. Mighty satisfied because it’s a great story, lucidly told, with ample subtle psychological insights and a pleasingly comprehensive and rich sense of a great many characters’ lives. A little suspicious because I still can’t quite tell if there’s more to it than that. You could very nearly head off into a reading where you stipulate that Lila never existed except as a projection of Lenu’s anxieties (about her intellect, her past, her family, her choices), and then find yourself bound to acknowledge that wait, Lenu doesn’t exist either, she’s a character in a book, and then . . . I get about that far, and I don’t know that it’s worth pursuing, or right to pursue, but somehow I feel there may be a there there, in this novel about a novelist. Luckily it’s not my job to say anything smart here; if it were I’d be anxious myself. What I can dumbly testify is that I was wholly engaged through all 1500 odd pages of this series and wish it hadn’t ended.