Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s operatic Neapolitan Quartet, a series that spans four volumes and six decades of friendship, traces the intertwined lives of characters Lila and Lenù. The series begins with Lenù and Lila’s childhood as they grow up in a poor Neapolitan neighborhood and traces their subsequent lives as wives, mothers and ultimately lonely old women. The quartet is a series of cyclical events encapsulated in a larger cyclical narrative structure. The first book of the series, entitled “My Brilliant Friend,” opens at the fourth book’s close. Rino, Lila’s son, telephones Lenù to tell her that his mother has gone missing. At the end of the final book, entitled “The Story of a Lost Child,” there is no answer as to where Lila has disappeared. However, Ferrante writes such a thorough description of Lila’s character and psyche throughout the series that, in the final book, it makes sense as to why she erased herself. It seems not to matter where she’s gone. Lila is mean, whip-smart and down-trodden — how could she not want to disappear, how could she not want to melt into what she calls the “dissolving boundaries” of her complicated world?
Ferrante weaves an intricate cloth depicting detailed scenes and characters that repeat themselves over and over to construct a patterned, sprawling tapestry. These intimate, very often domestic, scenes that Ferrante writes involve only the characters introduced in a list at the beginning of each volume. Though the scenes are private and the characters insular, the story conveys broad-reaching meditations on class, femininity and politics.
Lenù and Lila are foils for one another. Lenù is blonde, studious, eager to please, self-doubting and ambitious, whereas Lila is dark, naturally brilliant, mercurial, mean and irresistible to those around her. The story is told from Lenù’s point of view, but the two friends understand one another on such a deep and complex level that the reader is often privy to Lila’s perceived inner thoughts. The two are paradoxically bound to, yet at odds with, one another. Lenù cannot resist Lila’s magnetism, her cutting intellect and her unbounded passion even when Lila is at her most cruel. Ferrante’s prose is cerebral. The reader is immersed not only in Ferrante’s cinematic scenes, but also in Lenù’s body and her psyche. Ferrante lays bare Lila and Lenù’s most unlikable traits: their respective failures as mothers, their self-absorption, their gnawing anxiety, their seeming inability to experience joy and their mutual jealousy.
However, I can forgive their faults. I can forgive Lenù’s apathy towards her daughters in the face of her career and her foolish love affair. I can forgive Lila’s meanness, the calculated way in which she uses people and then discards them. I can forgive Lila and Lenù’s flaws because the reader becomes fully immersed in all facets of their respective characters. I bear witness to their long lives just as they bear witness to one another’s. Neither Lenù nor Lila are wholly good nor wholly bad. They possess a complex friendship and read each other in ways that reflect their own flawed selfhoods. Often, Ferrante writes their dialogue without tags and without quotes, as if she knows she’s painted the scene so well and fleshed out her characters so successfully that to include a tag would be gratuitous.
Most of all, the reader forgives Lenù and Lila for their faults because they, and the neighborhood, are the only immovable characters in the series. Men introduced into the narrative as great loves, as husbands, as saviors, as fathers to Lila and Lenù’s children, are ultimately abandoned by or abandon the two protagonists. Lenù and Lila’s children move away after failing to achieve what their mothers had hoped. Lenù and Lila’s respective siblings betray them in one way or another. Peripheral characters of the neighborhood and of childhood flit in and out, transformed by time and age, but Lila and Lenù are constants. The only permanent relationship is Lila and Lenù’s and their shared relationship with the neighborhood.
Lenù and Lila’s childhood Neapolitan neighborhood itself is a character. Throughout the four books, the neighborhood possesses its own mutable but distinct history, future and nature. Ferrante writes with Flaubert-level realism and attention to small-town politics as it reflects larger national and global issues. She describes the neighborhood with Dickensian grit and attention to class. What begins as a place from which Lila and Lenù want more than anything to escape and from which Lenù triumphantly does, becomes a place to which Lenù ultimately feels she must return. Though Lenù lives in and travels to many places — namely Florence, Rome, Turin and Pisa — nowhere is described with such detail as the Neapolitan neighborhood. Characters from the community of Lenù’s Neapolitan neighborhood appear in Florence, in Rome and in Turin. The only person who doesn’t follow Lenù out of Naples is Lila. Rather, Lenù returns to Lila, she returns to the neighborhood from which she strove so hard to remove herself.
Within this series, narrative events are not only cyclical, but generational patterns repeat themselves. Lenù, who worried as a child that she would adopt her mother’s limp, ultimately walks with one in the fourth book. The ogre-like Don Achille Carracci, murdered in the first book, is resurrected in the image of his son, Stefano, whom Lila marries and from whom she later separates. Nino, a lover of both an adolescent Lila and an adult Lenù, reveals himself to be no different from his womanizing, self-important father Donato Sarratore. The revolutionary Pasquale of the neighborhood is imprisoned as an adult just as his father was, and the spirited girls of Lenù and Lila’s childhood become, both in body and circumstance, their beaten, overworked mothers. Only Lila defies this pattern of daughter-transformed-to-mother, and instead follows her daughter’s suit and disappears.
At the end of the fourth novel, the dolls that Lenù and Lila threw down a gutter in childhood reappear. Readers are warned not to read too much into this symbol, not to draw parallels between Lila’s lost daughter, Tina, and the reappearance of Lenù’s doll, who is also named Tina. Perhaps the titular “Lost Child” is not in fact Tina, but is Lila herself: a girl who wasted her intellect, who was lost in the masses of the neighborhood, who, in the end, erased herself so successfully that not even her best friend, her shadow, can find her.
One of the strengths of this series is that it is so self-aware both as a novel positioned in literary tradition and as an autonomous art form and piece of literature. Ferrante invokes again and again the importance the written word, of Lenù’s studies and Lila’s insatiable hunger for books. The author’s name, Elena Ferrante, is in fact a pseudonym. Ferrante’s anonymity draws upon the age-old literary tradition, established perhaps by 17th century female writer Aphra Behn, of the self-fictionalization of female artists. If critics imbue male artists and writers immediately with a kind of mythology, female artists and writers in turn must mythologize themselves. Ferrante has done so, lending intrigue to her already masterful novels. She renders her work autonomous to engender its own mythology separate from herself. This is Barthes’ death-of-the-author dream made real by a female author writing on an epic scale about a domestically-described, distinctly female friendship.