Neapolitan Quartet

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 9.29.05 AM

Who is Elena Ferrante – male, female, other? She could be the publisher (according to the NY Review of Books) of what is now known as the Neapolitan Quartet. And perhaps not.

The four books follow the lives of two women over a thirty-year-or-more-period. They start as frightened defiant little girls in a poor violent neighborhood of Naples. Their parents are modest working people. Local lives intertwine emotionally, socially, economically  politically. and are ruled by the four Luigi Barzini maxims about Italian life, especially in the South: Poverty, Ignorance, Injustice, and most of all, Fear. There is fear of the system. Fear of the Camorra. Fear of the unknown. Fear of each other.

In a powerful stream-of-consciousness style, Elean Ferrante’s narrative (exploring friendship, obligation, conflict, self-knowledge, inner mysteries, outer unknowns, sexual politics), is full of insight into not only the Neapolitan post-World War II world but the world generally. She analyzes it in a completely non-polemical way, how we humans are driven: love, sex, money, influence, rage, and survival.

In the Neapolitan world men are ruled by machismo. They assault their women, wives and daughters, physically and emotionally. The men protect their women with a complex hierarchy of rules and regulations which control their movements, their educational opportunities, their sexual impulses. Severe punishment is meted out to anyone who defies these rules. The women collude in their own enslavement. If one is beaten, there is always a smug sense of the approval of other women; that she deserved it. For if one woman were to escape this cruel regime, then others would be encouraged to do so. Some would, and others would be left behind, and this is too painful to imagine. They need to support each other in this kingdom of brute force. Thus the women reinforce the rules, though secretly and with stealth they undermine them as well. Elena Ferrante writes as a feminist but it is an odd sort of feminism because she actually talks of the love of men with great tenderness, their needs, their pitiful inadequacies and their dependence. She is both confused by and very understanding of her world. She has great empathy for her characters. The narrator, Lena, learns very slowly how the world works. She absorbs knowledge like a hungry sponge, at the same time ever aware of her own limitations. Ignorance is never bliss in her world. It is an anaesthetic to those who will not see.

Lena’s great friend is the beautiful and tempestuous Lila, who can only be described as a force of nature – uncontrolled, unlimited in her feelings and reactions. She, like the winds, is entirely unpredictable. I have to say that one takes a stand with this character. You either envy her elemental personality or you loathe her. She is the destroyer of almost everything and everyone she touches. And yet in her wake she leaves truth, and the creative awakenings in others. She is utterly lacking in humility and self knowledge. She can only love by consuming as if she is a cleansing fire, but in the end she literally consumes herself. Lena is a time traveller, perhaps more an avatar of the writer’s own psyche. She is Zelig. She is a shape shifter. She quests. She learns. She always finds a path out of the maze. Life is full of dead ends. If only we could all find the way out.

They must be read in sequence: “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” and “The Story of the Lost Child.” I was enthralled.

Kaaren Hale

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.