Over the last month, I have been reading just one thing, pretty much: the Neapolitan quartet, by the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante. While these books are so huge I’m sure most of you already know what they are about, for those who have somehow missed the buzz, they chronicle the parallel lives of two women, friends and rivals, as they grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Naples in the 50s – then 60s, 70s, and present day as the series progresses. I read the first novel in the series, My Brilliant Friend, at the end of last year, and the next two novels (The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) one after the other this month. Today, I am about to embark on the fourth and final novel, The Story of the Lost Child.
My year in reading, so far, has been … puzzling. The Neapolitan novels are just one more example of the ambivalent, confusing relationship I am having with the books I’m reading in 2016. It’s commonly referred to with a simple-yet-expressive tag: love-hate. I felt it for Maurice, for The Outsider, even for the near-universally beloved The Goldfinch. Yet with Ferrante, unlike the others, I feel I can grasp the why of it, put into words this state of literary bewilderment I find myself in.
One one hand, Ferrante’s writing is spare to the point of being unbearably blunt, dry, and emotionless. The subject matter is depressing, violent, bleak. When I began reading My Brilliant Friend I didn’t care a thing about the narrator, Lenu/Elena, or understand her affection for her best friend, Lila/Lina. I didn’t understand what motivated Lenu’s enormous inferiority complex – why she always, always saw herself as lesser than Lila, why she would always interpret compliments given to her in such a twisted way that she saw them as affirming Lila’s greatness and degrading to her; why she made life-changing decisions out of a desire to prove herself worthy of Lila, when that feeling was not demonstrably mutual. In short, I just didn’t understand from where Lila’s charismatic influence – over Lenu and the other neighbourhood characters – supposedly derived. The novels state it, repeatedly, but I did not feel it.
And yet – somehow – I find myself cracking the spine on the fourth book, invested in these characters, invested in finding out what happens next in their lives. I have lived with them from childhood through elementary and high school, through becoming teenage brides and university students, through unhappy marriages and affairs; read of how Lenu became (almost by accident) a best-selling novelist and how Lila became one of the early women in the then-burgeoning field of computing programming. Somehow, at some point, I began to care what happened next. I began to feel angry when bad things happened to the women, betrayed by Lila’s indifferent, often cruel treatment of Lenu, stifled by the atmosphere of an Italy before feminism.
(Oh my, thank god for feminism. Seriously. My recommendation of the Neapolitan novels comes with an enormous invisible trigger warning, if you are into that sort of thing. The women in these novels are beaten, raped, degraded; dismissed, devalued and under-appreciated in every aspect of their lives. It is the kind of text that you look at and just go: “Thank goodness I was not born any earlier.” People who want to go back in time are nostalgia-addled morons.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the most explicitly feminist of the the three I have read so far. By this point, both women have married and both have wanted out of the institution, felt their power stripped from them and their dreams thwarted by the expectation that they have children and then not want anything else again, ever. Lenu begins a tentative exploration of feminism in this novel, reading feminist pamphlets and attending women’s separatist meetings. When you read it, you get the impression that Ferrante has lived through everything that Lenu lives through, and more.)
I think part of Ferrante’s literary charm is to be found in the same things that I found off-putting and odd at the beginning: her bluntness, her dryness, her lack of emotion. I hate to compare one of the most feminist writers I’ve read in recent years with one of the most misogynist, but I have only my own experiences to go off here – but the last time I experienced something similar was when I read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Different books, different subjects, different prose, and very different people behind the work; but that same bluntness that somehow created the same experience of strong emotion.
How do they do it, these writers? How do they create so much with so little? I’m more than a little envious.