The novels of the Neapolitan Quartet, starting with My Brilliant Friend, follow the lives of friends Lila and Elena from their childhood in a poor suburb of Naples to maturity, from 1950 when they are six to 2010. Friendship, a part of women’s lives which is fundamental and yet little developed in literature so far, emerges dramatically in this story as practice of difference: outside the traditional ethos of relationships freely established among peers. That kind of mastery over one’s life is a male privilege that inevitably entails superiority over the feminine. The relationship between Elena and Lila emerges, over time, as a fusion of transcendence and immanence: love and hatred, selfishness and generosity, confession and secrecy, cohabitation and separation succeed and intertwine during their stormy relationship. But this initiation rite wants to be first of all, and always, a covenant of solidarity for the mutual transformation of life.
Everything, in Elena and Lila’s lives, is under the sign of symbiosis: they were born a few days apart, both their names feature two syllables twisted in alliteration (Lila and Lenu), as well as the names of their two daughters (Tina and Imma), whilst their physical aspects as well as their personalities are complementary and opposed. Like in any symbiosis, their bond originates from a need to make up for a void: the friendship between the two girls makes up for the profound lack of relationship with their mothers, emblematic of the negative value put on women which manifests itself in an unsentimental and disconnected lineage of mothers and daughters. But if the only bond with the mother is represented as an invasive intrusion, friendship cannot be seen as anything but a sort of persecution. In order to exist, one needs to subtract something to the other; one needs to have something more and the other something less: by representing herself as a thief of Lila’s genius, Elena gradually builds her persona during her school and university years by using some of Lila’s most ingenious insights. This practice of expropriation that is both fictional and real stirs Elena’s own vocation to writing. Envy, which is at the base of their friendship, originates from the elective recognition of the other, that brings the two friends together initially but then inevitably excludes one of two in the next stage.
The novelty and strength of the quartet is also, and perhaps above all, formal. Ferrante - a fine writer, concise and experimental in her three previous novels - has had with the Neapolitan Novels the courage and creative intelligence to put themes that traditionally belong to mass culture and popular entertainment into a more complex form; in reply to an anthropological need of our times. The Ferrante Fever - the inexhaustible need in readers to devour/consume the four volumes one after the other - is part of a more general need for storytelling, the same need which has led many major television series to develop what we call these days the box-set binge culture. The family saga created by the intertwining of Elena and Lila’s lives has a double temporality. The Naples seen in the novels is a world in which the archaic and the contemporary coexist and blend into one another, confusing and diluting the linear chronology, destroying the compactness of history and its major events. Naples is in fact the disenchantment of progress. The neighborhood is both pre-modern and developed: in it the brutal and recurring violence is intertwined with the technological and commercial transformation (the installation of the first Italian center for computer science - the Basic Sight by Enzo and Lila – and the up-to-date economic speculations of the Solaras). It is this mixture, this backbeat of archaic and contemporary, that attracts and confuses the readers preventing them from assuming the position of those who recognize themselves in a triumphant and superior modernity.
Ferrante rejects any exotic representation of Naples as well as any suppression of its diversity in the name of a bourgeois decorum and respectability. One of the most popular genres to inspire Ferrante’s exciting plots and sub-plots, full of surprise effects, especially in the chapters’ clause, is in fact Neapolitan melodrama: the genre in popular Neapolitan culture, a powerful staging of songs and dialogue around basic human emotions. Even this is a form of archaic story-telling, but re-written here into a higher context in which stereotypical emotions such as passion, honor and murder – which are part of everyday life in the neighborhood - are used to tell a more complex story. Just the opposite of what happens in the feuilletton or in the thriller, here the involvement of the reader is powered-up only to be frustrated. The serialized nature of the genre is sabotaged: the endings do not come to a satisfactory close, the murderers or kidnappers are not found, the disappearances cannot be explained, the very title of the entire cycle belies expectations (it is Lila who gives Elena the status of ‘brilliant friend’, not the other way round).
The spiral of loss and growth in female friendship eventually results in another formal strategy which is particularly successful: the use of polyphonic narrative, whereby Elena’s voice doubles up with that of her friend’s. The origin of the novel itself stems from the desire to magically fill Lila’s absence, her enigmatic disappearance. The doubling of the narrative voice is provided by Elena’s focus on her friend’s thoughts, as documented in the written and oral materials Lila leaves behind. Elena often refers to the eight notebooks that her friend gives her in 1966; a long confession made by Lila guides the drafting of the years between 1967 and 1969; evidence from her daughter Imma documents her friend's passion for Naples in the mid-nineties. Each novel opens with a prologue that frames the story, this also serves to give a voice to the missing one, a voice that is partly muted because of Elena, who destroyed those very intense and evocative notebooks (sources of envy and rivalry), and is now forced to rebuild them through her memory. This narrative technique therefore simultaneously acts as an exorcism of envy and an anticipation of emotions: thanks to the eight notebooks, the narrator can focus on Lila and her hidden feelings, and then on what they arouse in Elena. The two women are at the same time sisters and strangers, warrantors and rivals of the other existence, both infused by the same competitive symbiosis - sometimes joyful, sometimes painful - in which, however, both the narrator and the narrated friend live. This structure allows a principle of reversibility (essentially, Elena is also narrated by Lila) and a very mobile focus, with the narrative voice distancing itself - and the reader from the narrative voice. This distance makes Elena an unreliable narrator and Lila an enigmatic character. The female polyphony is also an answer to the violence of men and their intellectual autism/inability. All the men in the novel with some ambition or intellectual capacity (from the university professor to the journalist) can make the woman the object of their speech but they are never able to recognize her as a subject: existential, conceptual and creative. The polyphony of Elena and Lila is ambivalent: the only narrative form that can give voice to a female point of view that expresses the ferocity which women are subjected without reducing them to the stereotypical role of victims, without making the narrative pathetic and melodramatic. Historically represented and perceived by the two women themselves as silent and invisible, the female point of view cannot be at the center of this narrative in an immediate and unreflective way. It gets to this centrality through a complex building, a premise and a frame that get stronger through the splitting/doubling their reason for being. Only an exceptional circumstance justifies this centrality: a death, or a disappearance, an absence.
In the original version of the tetralogy, Elena the narrator speaks always in Italian, but she constantly translates from her native language, the Neapolitan dialect, which vibrates and resonates everywhere. The Neapolitan dialect emerges in literal form only rarely, but always with a special intensity: either as a magmatic nucleus from which the single word, often obscene, comes out or as a strongly ugly slang. The Italian language is instead a "mask" that Elena wears to distance herself from the Neapolitan magma. For Elena, the Italian language of her youth marked a disconnection between her intimate and her inttellectual lives, but now - in the mature years of this long story about friendship that is the My Brilliant Friend quartet – it allows her a considerable variation of registers: from high to low, from lyrical to Italian para-dialettale. By using/filtering the dialect, Elena's narrative voice immediately acquires a swinging point of view: viscerally linked to the neighborhood/rione and its language, but also distant and alien; animated by an inevitable rootedness as well as by shame and a need to escape. This fluctuation contains the whole story, never told before, of the Italian modern internal migration from South to North. The language is also the genre. The Italian is not Elena’s mother tongue, and it is not a language spoken by women: the usurpation is twofold; her language is doubly foreign. The intellectual formation of Elena is a constant imitation of the words and posture of men, a passive disposition to receive and conform. Much more than a sociological essay on the customs of male domination in Italy (which is the subject of Elena’s second book), the series of novels recounts the development of a young woman in the sixties and seventies as the systematic training of a colonized human being fluctuating between resentment and inferiority.
The novels speak of "smarginatura" – the dissolving margins concept, the dissolution of boundaries around people and things. This traumatic experience of emptiness/non-existence has been rightly connected to the precarious nature of the female and of Lila in particular: she is the one experiencing this state of dissociation in the novel. But Lila is Naples. In fact, if we try to broaden the perspective, we see that this dissociate state also refers to a broader metamorphic energy, which is experienced by the entire city. "Smarginatura" also means, for example, going beyond the boundaries of the genre, as happens to Alfonso, whose gradual metamorphosis into a transgender arrives at its peak right through Lila. Naples is the city of the limen, the threshold, the city of opposites. Its eccentricity is based precisely on being a hermaphrodite and hybrid at the same time, male and female, archaic and contemporary, which under the pressure of violence can be merged into an enigmatic totality. Lila is the medium of a magical power that creeps into the grains of reality and infects primarily Elena, whose highly self-centered structure is based on an identity vacuum constantly filled by Lila. Their bond is generated from this dissociate state, like an unstoppable metamorphosis from which the two friends are constantly formed and transformed.
Another powerful drive of this invisible energy is the struggle between the sexes. The supremacy of men over women is first of all physical, which in bourgeois men is expressed as a need to colonize the female, in order to create "the automated woman". In working class men, however, this desire to dominate is brutal and the breaking of the female form is rather in the direction of the assimilation, cannibalism. Significantly, the first symptoms of dissociation that Lila perceives concern specifically the male body rather than the female: it’s her brother and spouse to be absorbed by a horrible metamorphosis that brings out from the cracks of their soul this primitive/barbaric violence against women. The dissociate state is thus also an affirmative process that originates in the female body, an extreme will of creation and representation of the world as for example in the case of the photo panel representing Lila in her wedding dress, powerfully manipulated by the two friends.
I wonder why this harsh and uncomfortable story, this magic realism that is the My Brilliant Friend cycle has been shared by so many readers, as to make of this quartet one of the most popular texts in the contemporary world. Maybe because we all need a narrative that shows us inside the darkness of our souls, inside the metamorphosis of our time. Maybe we all need the archaic and the contemporary of our daily lives to emerge not through a philosophy or essay, but through a story. And finally because this story is based on a human event so universally lived and felt, an event finally portrayed in the literary form and in our imagination: the friendship between two women.
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When it comes to Ferrante, we may feel, indeed, stranded on a beach, at night, left there to collect the tokens of her presence and whereabouts in this world. The tokens are words and in them we find the lucid exactness of worlds inhabited by characters who are as vivid and real as she is elusive. They deal with what the author has called frantumaglia, a term she borrows from her mother and her Neapolitan dialect (frantummàglia): "it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition). Ferrante’s compelling narrative dives into terribly muddy waters and surfaces from them with the strength of truth, where truth means not moral clarity but the unmistakable verity of naked human emotions. The origin of the word frantumaglia is very material; it refers, in fact, to a pile of fragments from broken objects that cannot be pieced together again.
This Colloquy seeks to bring together in one ongoing conversation, from a variety of intellectual perspectives, the voices of the international discourse about Ferrante’s novels and the significance of her work in the contemporary literary landscape.
As for who Ferrante might be, I propose again her response to a reader who sought to know her identity: "[. . .] what is better than reading in a room that is dark except for the light of a single reading lamp? Or what is better than the darkness of a theater or a cinema? The personality of a novelist exists utterly in the virtual realm of his or her books. Look there and you will find eyes, sex, lifestyle, social class, and the id" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition)