Photographer: James Day
When I read a couple of weeks ago that Elena Ferrante's tetralogy set in Naples would soon become a TV adaptation, I decided that I had to read those novels. I was not even aware that Ferrante was such a major name in contemporary literature, translated into several languages. Who is she, I wondered. I discovered her identity is not known at all, she could be a he - and no, I don't subscribe to the view that men cannot write in a female voice and cannot create very believable female characters. Like Emma Bovary, for example.
I called up my 'little' sister, who unlike me never left Italy except for vacations, she just moved from the South to the North and now lives near Turin. I asked her if she had read Ferrante. But she had not. Full of curiosity, I searched online for reviews and was stunned that everyone concurred on one point: Ferrante is a great story teller and her Neapolitan novels are simply compelling.
I called up my sister again and we both decided to read the novels at the same time. She, being a more traditional reader, went to her favourite bookshop and ordered the first volume of the series, as it was not in stock. I could not be bothered to track down the original and have it sent so I decided to download the English translation by Ann Goldstein, highly praised by everyone and indeed very good but, as it turned out, imperfect. I found some word choices extremely weird, and concluded that the original Italian must have been somewhat misunderstood. I will check in due course.
I got all four volumes and even got an Audible version for the first one, I love Audible, it allows you to close your eyes and have the book read to you wherever you are, no matter what you are doing. Some books are right for Audible, others are not - I could never have an essay read out to me, I just have to read it myself. But a story...
Having just finished book four, The Lost Child, I have to agree with all the reviewers: Ferrante does know how to tell a story. Lila and Lenu are childhood friends, from an impoverished Neapolitan neighbourhood and we follow them through their life till maturity, getting more than a glimpse of Naples and Italy, with its socio-political upheavals, from the 1950s to contemporary times. Lila is an extraordinarily intelligent child who does not have much schooling, marries young, leaves her husband following an intense love affair, works in a factory, becomes a computer analyst and finally an entrepreneur, never leaves Naples, has a useless son and then a beautiful daughter who disappears. Lenu also from a working class background manages to study, goes to university - not just any university but that bastion of privilege which is the Normale of Pisa - marries well, divorces, becomes a famous writer yet throughout her life she can never get rid of her envy and sense of inferiority in relation to Lila, who is more intelligent and more beautiful. They share a lover, Nino, also from the neighbourhood, but at different times in their lives. He is one of the most dislikeable characters in the novel, an opportunist who can't keep it in his pants, second only to Lenu by way of being dislikeable - I have not taken to either at all.
Photographer: Ken Walsh. Alamy Source: The Guardian
I know that Lila and Lenu complement each other, possibly being one person, but in the book they appear as two distinct characters, two friends. A good story teller gets you so involved, characters really do come to life and you share their joys and sorrows. Ferrante is pretty amazing. At times I felt as if I was reading an autoethnography especially the third book, and I did not always like it, but it has to be said that she always succeeds in sucking you in. 'Unputdownable' is not enough of a word to describe her Neapolitan novels. For the whole week I have lived with Lila and Lenu, always eager to pick up the story where I left off and hear or read more, staying up all night to finish the books. I hated getting to the end of the fourth book and yet I also felt a sense of relief.
I love Lila, whereas Lenu totally bores me, I find her pretentious, her longing for Nino is at times ridiculous and at times intolerable, but that's the way she is meant to be. Lenu, for all her whining and insecurity, seriously gets on my nerves. It is Lenu who is the narrator, so maybe it is for this reason that she can come across as being so dislikeable, her reactions are magnified.
Whereas Lila totally intrigues me, even though she is at times very mean. So do the other characters: the Camorrist brothers, the other women of the neighbourhood, Lenu's chauvinistic academic husband, her daughters. I recognised in Ferrante's account the Italy of the 1970s, the references to the second wave feminists, I too read 'Let's spit on Hegel' by Carla Lonzi and it did have an impact on me, I was only a high school girl back then.
In the background there is Naples. I have been there, I know the city. It is amazingly beautiful yet quite terrifying and yes, mean. Like Lila.
I can't wait to see the adaptation.