Saturday, October 18, 2014

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

At the request of a friend, I've consolidated my reviews of Ferrante's 3 Neapolitan novels into one more easily shared post:
Elena Ferrante’s novels get better and better. To date three novels have been published in the series often referred to as the Neapolitan novels. The novels work on many levels: an exploration of the social and economic divisions in Italy; the extent to which class and gender constrain women’s lives, the difficulty of ever erasing the imprint of one’s background, the complexities of women’s’ friendships over time. This is the best book about female friendship I have read since Toni Morrison’s Sula. Ferrante has placed her story of the friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo within the context of a fully realized social world, with language that is nuanced, powerful, that makes you want to linger over her sentences.

Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and speculation about her identity is rampant. In Italy she is widely thought to be the male writer Domenico Starnone. It is difficult to believe that someone who writes so powerfully about the female experience is male–-a reaction shared by all the women I know who have read her books.

The first book in the Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, traces the complex, emotionally charged friendship between two young women growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Naples in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Lina Cerullo (whom Elena calls Lila) was the rebel—-intellectually gifted, mercurial, unpredictable. Elena Greco was the “good girl,” intelligent, hard-working, eager to please. As Lila tells Elena, “you are good at making yourself liked…people are afraid of me.” Their friendship is marked by intense emotional attachment, as well as growing jealousy and competition as their paths begin to diverge. Lila’s father refuses to pay her school fees, thus ending her education at elementary school. Elena’s parents, torn between pride in their daughter's achievement and fear that she will become estranged from then, reluctantly agree to let her continue her education.

No one does the transition from childhood to young womanhood as powerfully as Ferrante. Elena and Lila experience this transition in an impoverished, deeply sexist southern Italian world in which violence against women and girls is just part of the air they breathe. What we now call sexual harassment was something women simply accepted as their lot in life— except for Lila:
On the street the men looked at all of us, pretty, less pretty, ugly, and not so much the youths as the grown men…and [we] had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities directed at us, and keep going. Lila no. To go out with her …became a point of permanent tension. If someone looked at her, she returned the look. If someone said something to her she stopped, bewildered as if she couldn’t believe was he talking to her…
My Brilliant Friend ends with Elena determined to continue her education and Lila married at age sixteen to a prosperous grocer, someone she hoped would rescue her family from poverty and protect her from the scion of the organized crime family her family had pressured her to marry. The wedding scene is brilliantly done both in terms of the complex interplay of emotions as both Lila and Elena realize how much their friendship and their world is changing and also because of the wealth of vividly drawn social detail. Ferrante excels at the cliffhanger ending. The novel concludes with Lila’s realization on her wedding day that she has made a horrible mistake. Ferrante’s devoted readers had to wait to wait a year before volume two appeared to find out how Lila managed to extricate herself from a disastrous marriage.

The second novel, The Story of a New Name, begins with Lila Cerullo trapped in a loveless marriage and Elena Greco grimly determined to use education as her route out of the neighborhood. Elena is haunted by the fear of becoming her mother: “Would my mother truly emerge from me, with her limping gait, as my destiny?” The women of the neighborhood bore the scars of multiple pregnancies, back-breaking labor and domestic violence:
They were silent with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin with hollow eyes and cheeks or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And good god, they were ten at most twenty years older than me.
The women accepted abuse as normal. When Lila’s husband, Stefano, tries to beat her into submission, “there was no one in the neighborhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think she need a good thrashing for a long time. So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.”

Ferrante’s sympathies extend to the young men who are trapped in the sexist script written for them from time immemorial; Elena recounts her conversation with Stefano, both driven by and disturbed by the role he has been conditioned to play:
With tears in his eyes, he admitted that on their wedding night he had had to beat her, that he had been forced to do it, that every morning, every evening she drew slaps from his hands on purpose to humiliate him, forcing him to act in a way that he never, ever ever would have wanted. Here he assumed an almost frightened tone…
The culture of violence is a trap for both men and women, a trap Elena is determined to escape.

Elena and Lila’s lives continued to diverge; their relationship deteriorated further when Lila began an affair with the love of Elena’s life, her old school friend Nino Serratore. Lila leaves her husband, a dangerous act in a culture in which men see themselves as justified in murdering an adulterous wife. She is soon abandoned by Nino and once again living in poverty while Elena continues her improbable climb from extreme poverty to the educated upper-middle class. However, despite her success in school, Elena is haunted by the fear that Lila is the truly brilliant one and that she is an unworthy impostor. She sees her success as something achieved through “sheer persistence” rather than through talent.

Elena then accomplished what to her family and to herself was the unthinkable—she published a successful, critically acclaimed novel. As a consequence, she finally achieves a measure of self-confidence. Once she had passively accepted the non-stop sexual harassment that was part of life in the neighborhood. Now she has the strength to fight back:
I felt a power that no longer knew how to adjust to the pretend not to notice with which in general, it was possible to survive in the neighborhood and outside it. Whenever in the throng of passengers I felt male hands on my body, I gave myself the sacrosanct right to fury and reacted with cries of contempt…
Although Elena’s self-confidence increased dramatically, the hidden injuries of class were never far from the surface. She realizes that she can never achieve the self-assurance of those who were born into privilege.
Suddenly I was aware of the almost:. Had I made it? Almost. Had I torn myself away from Naples, the neighborhood? Almost…Behind the almost I seemed to see how things stood. …I was scared of anyone who had that culture without the almost, with casual confidence.
And the old fear of being overshadowed by Lila never disappeared. Lila had entrusted Elena with a box filled with her notebooks, which she feared her husband would destroy. Elena immediately starts reading the notebooks even though she had sworn to Lila that she would not.
Every word of Lila’s diminished me. Every sentence, even sentence written when she was still a child seemed to empty out mine…every past effort of mine seemed without meaning.
Consumed with jealously of Lila’s talent and tormented by self-doubt, Elena throws the box with Lila’s notebooks into the Arno River. Elena, the “good girl” is capable of real malevolence. The novel ends with Elena, a successful author at a book signing in Milan. As she did in My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante concludes the novel with a dramatic plot twist: the man Elena has loved since childhood turns up to praise her book.

The third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay begins begins with Elena, a university graduate and successful writer, and Lila, denied those opportunities, a worker in a sausage factory. Elena is engaged to Pietro Airota, the scion of a prestigious family. She sees him as means of escape from her working class background, yet her own class insecurities are never far from the surface. She wonders if she is fully accepted by her fiance’s family: “What am I to the Airotas—a jewel in the crown of their broad mindedness”?

Ferrante has written the best account I’ve ever read of the struggle to climb the class ladder--in Elena Greco’s case, making several leaps from deep poverty to the intellectual elite of Italian society. Elena cannot shake the fear that she is an impostor. At a book signing for her first well-received, autobiographical novel, she is easily intimidated by a critical comment from a man in the audience: “I had become again the poor little girl from the poor neighborhood of Naples, the daughter of the porter with the dialect cadence of the South, amazed at having ended up in that place, playing the part of the cultured young writer.”

As hard as she tries, Elena cannot get rid of the imprint of her background. When she and her husband visit her relatives in the old neighborhood, Elena finds herself reverting to Neapolitan dialect: “I realized that my voice was taking on the tones of the dialect, out of nervousness, that words were coming to me in the Neapolitan of the neighborhood, that the neighborhood …was imposing its language on me, its mode of acting and reacting.”

Marriage to Pietro Airota provides Elena with upper middle class advantages, and helps her to increase her distance from the world of her childhood, but emotionally and sexually her marriage is a deep disappointment. Elena soon realizes she is not in love with her husband, but with the life he could give her. She describes her marriage to Pietro Airota as entering a “protective family, a sort of well-fortified castle.” After having children, she soon perceived her marriage not as a protected space but as a prison: “I found the isolation I ended up in unbearable…I hadn’t slaved since childhood just to be imprisoned in the roles of wife and mother.”

Ferrante has written a deeply moving account of the dissolution of marriage. Reconnecting with her old love, Nino Serratore, made the marriage to Airota more unbearable and Elena experiences a maelstrom of conflicting emotions–-intense love for Nino, guilt about hurting a man who had been in his own way a good husband, deep anxiety about the impact of divorce on her young children---all this along with her doubts as go whether the relationship with Nino would be a lasting one.

Although Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay focuses primarily on Elena, her complicated relationship with Lila forms the emotional heart of the novel. This is a relationship which will endure, as the men in their lives come and go. The trajectory of their lives often moves in opposite directions. When Elena’s life is on a downswing—increasingly unhappy with her marriage, unable to advance her career--Lila’s life is on an upswing, achieving success in the nascent computer technology industry. Elena has ambivalent feelings about Lila, deeply emotionally attached but envious of Lila’s talent—even at one point wishing that Lila would die. But when Lila is ill, Elena does everything she can to get Lila good medical care and devotes herself to "reorganizing Lila's life."

The personal struggles of these two women take place against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960’s and 70’s. Elena was not all that interested in politics but attracted by the drama of political activism; yet she was also threatened and saw the 1960’s left as posing a challenge to the upper middle class life she was trying to build. Elena was the observer of social movements; Lila, with a deeper understanding of economic injustice was drawn into the political struggle and became a union activist. Lila was deeply critical of the student left’s attempts to build a student/worker alliance—the arrogance of the students, their ignorance of the factory workers they hoped to organize, their unawareness of the futility of “distributing a densely written leaflet to people who could barely read.” Ferrante, whoever she is, clearly had some experience of the student left of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Her description is pitch perfect.

Like many women who had some involvement in the 1960’s left, both Elena and Lila experienced a feminist awakening. Elena observes that there were few women involved and they “were mostly silent, flirting with male activists.” Both Elena and Lila had a developing feminist consciousness before the emergence of an organized feminist movement, and Elena had explored feminist themes in her first novel. What many of her female readers found most compelling was the exploration of male sexual selfishness. Elena described “male annoyance, the boredom of one who has already had his orgasm and now would like to go to sleep,” a sexual honesty which resonated with her female readers.

Violence against women, the powerful feminist theme which dominated the first two novels of the series, runs throughout Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The novel opens with a disturbing image of a dead woman, a childhood friend of Lila’s and Elena’s. Elena wonders “how many of those who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.” Even Elena’s marriage to a mild-mannered, educated man is at one point marred by violence.

The feminist movement of 1970’s had a powerful impact on Elena. She was not interested in consciousness raising: “ seemed to me I knew well enough what it meant to be born female. I wasn’t interested in the work of consciousness-raising. And I had no intention of speaking in public about my relationship with Pietro.” But her imagination was stirred by her research into representations of women in literature and she again found her voice as a writer:
And so I pushed on in my speculations form the first and second biblical creations to Defoe-Flanders, Flaubert-Bovary, Tolstoy-Karenina…I discovered everywhere female automatons created by men. There was nothing of ourselves…
She repudiates her former attempts “to make [her] own head masculine so that it would be accepted in the culture of men,”and seeks to “investigate [her] nature as a woman.” Could this be Ferrante’s answer to those readers who think that her pseudonym conceals the identity of a male author? There are times in the novel when we can see distance between Elena Ferrante, the author, and her character Elena Greco. The explicitly feminist passages are not among them.

Both Elena and Lila (and perhaps their creator Elena Ferrante), are what we might call difference feminists. Having grown up in society where gender boundaries were clearly marked and where transgressing those boundaries was fraught with danger, both Elena and Lila see women’s experiences as radically different from men’s. Lila responds to her old childhood friend Alfonso who confesses to her his desire to be a woman:
…get out of your mind that you can be a woman like me. All you’ll succeed in being is what a woman is according to you men. You can copy me, make a portrait as precise as an artist, but my shit will always remain mine, and yours will always be yours.
The novel is infused with this sense of female experience as fundamentally different from male experience.

Again we have a cliffhanger ending. Elena leaves her husband and daughters for Nino Serratore, the man she has loved since childhood, leaving the reader to wonder if Elena is making a disastrous mistake. Ferrante has certainly left hints that this will not end well. We’ll have to wait until September 2015 when volume four of the Neapolitan novels is released to find out.

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