I've read a number of reviews of the novels recently, especially since finishing Book 3 last week, and I have yet to see a serious critical assessment. It could well be that I just haven't looked enough. A few themes are typically mentioned - the saga of an enduring friendship, the tension between the North and the South of Italy - yet these are themes that could be true of other novels too. What's unique about Ferrante's gripping saga? It is especially disappointing when so much could be said about the novels, and when one considers that most reviews already assume spoilers. There really is no need for holding back.
The main exception appears to be James Woods' 2013 overview of Ferrante's work in English (including "My Brilliant Friend"), which touches on some of the "feminist" themes that are, I believe, at the heart of these novels.
Another informative pointer is Victoria Zhuang's observant article at the Harvard Review, in which she notes that the Neapolitan saga has something in common with George Eliot's MiddleMarch, a thread on which I will expand.
This post is not a thorough overview or analysis by any stretch of the imagination. A series of novels this rich deserves much more attention than I am able to stick into a blog post. Instead it expands on a few impressions and thoughts that occurred to me while reading - or lying awake at night, as the case may be - and which I hope will be of use to others while considering the works for analysis.
Part of my discussion will involve arguing against the view that this is simply a bildungsroman, where that is understood to be a type of coming-of-age novel "that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age), in which character change is extremely important." (Wikipedia). Yes, of course, the Neapolitan Saga is at least partly that, and perhaps when James Woods first mentioned it he did so with "My Brilliant Friend" in mind, which we know is merely a foundation for the heartbreak to come. However I do fear that if the whole saga becomes branded as a bildungsroman then its real value could be missed. There is more to it, as I hope to show. So stick with me. I start with Elena and Middlemarch, and come to Lila and more feminist themes later on.
Towards the end of "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" we are confronted with this remarkable passage, related by Elena:
"We were therefore at this point: my husband's sister considered my marriage a mistake and said it to me frankly. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, it seemed to me the ultimate and unbiased confirmation of my conjugal unease. Besides, what could I do about it? I said to myself that maturity consisted in accepting the turn that existence had taken without getting too upset, following a path between daily practices and theoretical achievements, learning to see oneself, know oneself, in expectation of great changes. Day by day I grew calmer. My daughter Dede went to first grade early, already knowing how to read and write; my daughter Elsa was happy to stay alone with me all morning in the still house; my husband, although he was the dullest of academics, seemed finally close to finishing a second book that promised to be even more important than the first; and I was Signora Airota, Elena Airota, a woman depressed by submissiveness who nevertheless, urged by her sister-in-law but also in order to fight discouragement, had begun to study almost in secret the invention of woman by men, mixing the ancient and modern worlds. I didn't have an objective; only to be able to say to Mariarosa, to my mother-in-law, to this or that acquaintance: I'm working." - p. 353.
This passage summarises the dark hour of Elena's soul just before the dawn: in the very next chapter - a chapter with the prescient number of 100, like the gateway to a new journey - Nino is reintroduced into the story. She finally judges her own marriage as Mariarosa does - a failure, with little to commend it. Even children bring her no real joy, despite their cleverness and obedience. They're just reminders of her own obedient, yet clever, nature.
This is a good moment to turn to MiddleMarch. We find in Pietro hints of a more modern version of Casaubon, whom Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch marries and devotes herself to. Unlike Dorothea, Elena doesn't exactly devote herself to Pietro or his work. That level of idealism is never really present in Elena. Nevertheless, there is a hardworking academic bookishness that envelopes both Pietro and Elena's lives that initially pull them closer together. Pietro, as a professor of a dead language - Latin - approximates the Casaubon who busied himself with academic questions that no one else required answering any more.
In Middlemarch it is Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's younger cousin, who opens Dorothea's eyes to the fact that Casaubon's efforts - his life's project - and therefore also hers, may be in vain: those academic questions he deemed so important may have already been superseded.
Elena's situation is not as idealistic and extreme. She takes no interest in Pietro's work, and despite his professorial status, doesn't even trust his opinion of her own writing. But let's not forget that her childhood ideals included the semblance of what she now had attained. I will return to this later. One could argue that the gears of this existence are so well-oiled that Pietro's their influence in each other's lives is superfluous. Patriarchy's silent tentacles means she is still living out the recipe of patriarchy even while they lead separate lives: a submissive wife who looks after two perfect children while her husband goes out to improve his career and standing in the world. Meanwhile, she languishes.
Although it is tempting to want to judge Pietro the way one does Casaubon, he also has a humane side more reminiscent of another literary character - Edgar Linton - to whom I return later. Pietro is a complex intellectual man, isolated in his own thoughts. In other words, the opposite of what the rest of his family likes: a politically engaged intellectual, like Mariarosa, like Franco Mari, like Nino. This predilection makes them seem more alive, and Pietro pale and lifeless. Yet he has a tender side which comes to life with Elena's mother, with Nino, with Lila, and the life of his mind - although not demonstrated - is clearly vivid. In his own way he has rebelled against the norms of the Airota family, even as he upholds the status quo. His rebellion, therefore, is perhaps futile as much as Casaubon's ambitions were futile.
His choice of wife, Elena - the girl from Naples, from the poor neighbourhood - also shows his wilder, less predictable side. When things go wrong between Pietro and Elena, he turns out to be capable of coming unhinged, and of showing passion. Elena, for her part, naively hoped he would continue exhibiting that paternalistic reason, but he turns out to be flesh and blood after all. What Elena dislikes about him may in part include her increasing dislike of ivory tower patriarchal academia, but certainly an important part of what she loathes in him is what she also loathes in herself: the inability to act, to change. She has always relied on others for action: on Lila, on Nino. Thus, when Nino stays with them, she speaks of "the excitement - maybe yes, it was excitement - that gripped me in seeing, in hearing, how an Airota, an extremely well-educated Airota, lost ground, was confused, responded feebly to the swift, brilliant, even cruel aggressions of Nino Sarratore, my schoolmate, my friend, born in the neighbourhood, like me." (p.378).
Pietro's fortress turns out to be rather vulnerable to Nino's Trojan horse from the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is Pietro's undoing, just as the political perturbations that have reached even Florence and the university, disturbs him deeply. He prefers the quiet life.
For her part, Elena sees in Pietro's steadiness under fire not a virtue, but a status quo to be toppled and overcome. By the time Pietro has come to a decision to tell her about his resolve (which is balanced and principled) regarding the police's questions that he faced at the university, Elena no longer knows what he is talking about. He is left with his principles while her heart has moved on.
The tragedy of Elena and Pietro's relationship is that she never wanted him passionately, that they've never even really understood each other. The signs were there, but she walked into it. He sort of happened to her, and she was happy to be brought into his circle of influence. His family and all the surrounding excitement compensated - at least at first - for his own relative "dullness" - even when compared to Franco Mari. She could overlook even his conservative demands towards her. Meanwhile, she has never successfully exorcised Nino from her heart, and he still lurks there, waiting for the right moment to appear - or rather, pounce. She herself doesn't know how to pounce. The reader has suspected what might happen - although Ferrante's superb writing places everything in doubt, constantly - even if Elena herself has never completely believed in it.
Nino in Elena's life not only parallels the influence of Will Ladislaw in Dorothea's life, but also exceeds it in terms of the history he shares with her, by having known her since childhood, by being from her neighbourhood, and by being the one that she herself has always known she loved. We know that Nino's marriage is one of convenience for him (although not for his wife Eleanora) and he is conscious of his situation. Despite his intellectual appearance he is savvy and streetwise, and even his choice in marriage shows this. But he is also an incurable romantic, just like his father Donato, and when he loves he loves with total abandon. For a while anyway. He is aware of his own worth, and unlike the women in his life who usually have nowhere else to go to - Lila gave up everything for him - he manages to escape via education to save himself.
Nino's passionate volatility is likely to be his and Elena's undoing. Ironically, his initial request that they remain lovers is actually the more realistic alternative. But that would never satisfy Elena, who has always loved Nino and is fed up with her marriage anyway. She wants a new adventure, one way or the other.
If Nino is true to type - and I can only speculate, since I have yet to read the fourth installment, due out this week - I predict he will become bored with Elena sexually, and so be unfaithful to her. It won't happen immediately, but it will happen soon enough. The result? She will leave him, her dreams shattered, and she will become stronger for it in the long run. He may cheat on her against his better conscience, since he insinuated that he loved Elena even when he got involved with Lila, that he merely substituted Elena with Lila; but we also know that he is a somewhat unreliable narrator of his own life (eg., he "forgets" what he said about Lila's love-making back in Milan after the book-signing), and tends to think with his passions, at least when it comes to women. It's what makes him attractive, and it's also what makes him dangerous. He is a free spirit or a loose cannon, depending on where you are standing.
So with the clues there for us as readers, I foresee tears. Yet the reader can't outsmart Elena Ferrante, she's always ahead of us, and so I expect the journey to be more nuanced, and certainly more compelling than my prediction.
There is also the sense that Ferrante doesn't really do happy endings, but let's for a moment pretend that the end of "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" really is the end of the saga. Some called it a trilogy, and perhaps it could stand on three feet. Just.
I have thus far left out the most important character of all: Lila. The novels start out with her disappearance, and the novels are a way of inscribing her reticent yet forceful nature into existence. This goes more than skindeep, and I can now return to the quote I started with, as it now comes into its own:
"I was Signora Airota, Elena Airota, a woman depressed by submissiveness who nevertheless, urged by her sister-in-law but also in order to fight discouragement, had begun to study almost in secret the invention of woman by men, mixing the ancient and modern worlds."
Contrast this with Lila's speech less than ten pages earlier (italics in the original text):
"You see how things change: if I had remained Signora Caracci I would be ruined, I would have ended up with my ass on the ground like all the Carraccis; instead I am Raffaella Cerullo and I'm the technical director for Michele Solara at four hundred and twenty thousand lire a month" - p.344
If we gloss over the technical hindrance of Lila's relationship with Michele Solara ("I'm using him, not him me", she says), what we are left with is an assertion of Lila's independent selfhood. She refers to herself by her birthname, Rafaella Cerullo, and then goes on to indicate how her whole family has forgiven her and now depends on her. In other words, she is the boss, she is the master of her own world.
Even Lila's relationship with Enzo is beyond marriage convention, and we may well look there for clues to a true respect not marred by all-consuming passions, which inevitably destroy as much as they create. It was that mutual respect that helped her to restore herself to herself after the violent and humiliating experience of her marriage and, to some extent, her life in the sausage factory (she nevertheless considers the sausage factory a way of earning independent income, so that she wouldn't be dependent on Enzo).
The timing of these two speeches, the one from Lila to Elena, and from Elena to us, is poignant because soon in chapter 100 Nino returns to the narrative in a starring role, and although we started with Lila as the driving force in Book 1, Book 3 ends with Elena and Nino on an airplane, metaphorically embarking on an exclusive journey, a great leap, with no solid ground beneath their feet. It also echoes Dorothea and Will falling in love in Middlemarch, that much is clear, but where on earth is Lila? She is mentioned briefly towards the end, talking about Manuela Solara's murder, and the effect this is having on the Solaras and even Lila's job. But otherwise she is neglected. What does it mean?
For the first time, Elena has made an independent decision that takes her beyond societal convention - even that of the middle classes into which she has married. Affairs are tolerated (like those of Pietro's mother Adele), but to break ranks and flee with one's lover, that is not common. In other words, Elena Airota is acting on behalf of Elena Greco, and like Lila - Lila her muse and inspiration, Lila her biggest influence, Lila her model of independent action - is restoring a sense of wholeness to herself by following her heart for the first time in her life.
Now we can begin to move backwards to the start, towards Lila. If the story ended here, after 3 books, we might be able to say something like the following: Lila's reticence requires mediation, but the model set by Middlemarch (for instance) is not enough. Dorothea Brookes is still "the invention of woman by men" (note the singular woman versus the plural men). Lila, on the other hand, embodies subversion of female stereotypes. Most reviews I read note that she is feral and catlike. This is quite apt. She is outside Italian, outside cultivated language, and her observations in or on language - "The Green Fairy", or her rhapsodic description of Beckett's play - are highly original. She is also uncompromising, and has the ability to refuse without withdrawing. Unlike Elena, who withdraws and leaves, Lila's desire to be present, to assert herself, always overcomes her own attempts to withdraw and to escape. Her strength, her ability, her sheer alpha female quality exceeds words, and if Elena succeeds in describing Lila vividly it is likely also because Elena, by the time of writing, has restored and realised in her own self a fiery, independent self she first saw and recognised in Lila.
Reviewers, with some justification, have been intent (probably following James Woods) on calling these novels a bildungsroman. If we read the process of character construction as described above, then Lila is on the one hand herself (a force of nature, a femaleness outside the capabilities of both men and women to tame or integrate, at least for long, in part because they all represent a failed patriarchy with whom she cannot feel connected) and on the other hand this aspiring self of Elena, this part that she never knew she could become or at least approximate, but has finally taken the first major step into doing so by eloping with Nino. A woman who follows her heart and her dream.
The Lila that is "herself" is the one that remains to some extent beyond language, and which Elena's writing-Lila-into-existence problematises. It is one way of perceiving the feminist discourse taking place here, namely the circumscribing and engraving onto language and culture of the nature of Lila, of Rafaella Cerullo, of this force of nature whose arrival in the world is a unique event in literature. An event, in the Badiouan sense, as it can set in motion an attempt at truth procedures - such as this one - and inspire a fidelity to understand it. This fidelity is emotional, and Ferrante's brilliance lies in intimately connecting us to the lives of these characters, and especially Lila's character. In short, it is the inscription of a woman, by a woman.
Lila speaks in dialect nearly all of the time, and we are reading about her in English, with 99.9% of the intermediary Italian translated, so clearly we are not in a position to say anything definite about Lila, only what has been inscribed ... and yet here, even here, Elena has never been given genuine authority to write about Lila, or even about the neighbourhood:
"All right", she said, "write, if you want, write about Gigliola, about whoever you want. But about me no, don't you dare, promise."
"I won't write about anyone, not even you."
"Careful, I've got my eye on you."
"I'll come look in your computer. I'll read your files, I'll erase them."
"You think I'm not capable of it?"
"I know you're capable. But I can protect myself."
She laughed in her old mean way.
"Not from me." - p.29
So the saga is a work written in anger, a furious love letter, a proof that Lila existed, despite Lila's desire to disappear.
Elena is Lila's mediator by virtue of being her only real confidante over the years, and the only known woman she respects personally. When Elena declares that she is leaving Pietro, Lila shouts:
"Why did you study so much? What fucking use has it been for me to imagine that you would enjoy a wonderful life for me, too? I was wrong, you're a fool." - p. 417
Is Lila overreacting, finally reaching the limits of her influence over Elena, or is her judgement - "you're a fool" - prescient, a sign of drama to come?
Part of the answer lies a page earlier. Lila wants to send Gennaro to Elena to look after him, adding her reason by the by: "you're the only person I trust" (p. 416). For her own part, Elena doesn't speak her thoughts immediately, but thinks "You're the only person I trust. I felt like smiling, she still didn't know that I had become untrustworthy".
Elena is of course thinking of her own sudden decision to go with Nino and leave her life with Pietro - even her children - behind. She had become untrustworthy. She has always represented something firm, something - perhaps - controllable to Lila. For the first time she has upset and subverted Lila's own expectation. She has become untrustworthy. Lila, for her apparent strength, needs solid things in her life - Enzo's firm, unchanging character, even when he is distant at work, and Elena's unchanging intellectual virtuousness.
A part of Lila's happiness lives through the ideals she has seen realised in Elena's dependable progression through school and as the wife of the young professor Airota: "Why did you study so much? What fucking use has it been for me to imagine that you would enjoy a wonderful life for me, too?".
We hear a different version of that lament earlier, after Lila finished reading Elena's second novel:
"she almost cried: You mustn't write those things, Lenù, you aren't that, none of what I read resembles you, it's an ugly, ugly book, and the one before it was too." - p.273
Can it be that, all this time, Elena's life has represented a truer success to Lila than it has seemed to Elena herself? The perceived liberating role of education in these novels should not be underestimated, and resonates beyond the page even to our own world. It is a an idealism that is also a realism, an aspirational pragmatism. Lila's pain at not being allowed to proceed beyond elementary school influenced her whole life from then onwards. That door that closed in her face placed her firmly under the influence of the neighbourhood, of courtship, marriage, and led to all her later disappointments. The wounds go about as deep as one can imagine.
Education lifts people out of poverty into a more comfortable life. Lila, like Elena, bought into that dream, and the evidence, at least on the surface, suggests that they were not wrong to do so: Elena is generally considered the most successful person from the neighbourhood, and Lila, were it not for her extraordinary precociousness, with a bit of help from Enzo and Elena, she would never have been able to earn the living enabled by her work as a programmer. Anyone with less ability - like most of those in the neighbourhood - have a hard life with few opportunities in life to look forward to. Yet with a better education, what greater heights could Lila have reached?
So Lila, the hardboiled girl from the neighbourhood, turns out to be a bit of an idealist herself, in what is an unlikely echo of the idealism of Dorothea Brookes. Her aspiration finds an outlet in Elena - indeed, in these novels - because they are ultimately the release of her demons, of her blocked ambition at the age of 13. When she chucks The Green Fairy into the fire at the end of Book 2, make no mistake, she is in hell.
If we want to find a literary equivalent for Lila we must leave the neat environment of Middlemarch behind and head to the moorlands, to the land of Catherine Earnshaw ... and Heathcliff. It is Heathcliff, forever outside society, who resembles more closely the forceful, uncompromising and inventive nature exemplified by Lila. Like Heathcliff in Brönte's novel, Lila has a habit of reinventing herself. Their circumstances may be different, but they both share that survivor's mentality, and the ability to adapt when the chips are down. Both are also inscribed into language and culture by a mediator, and in a cultural space that they themselves both resist and are barred from.
Edgar Linton as Heathcliff's foil, and representative of culture and cultivation, is mirrored by characters like Pietro and cultivated ivory tower academia in general. Edgar Linton's weakness in the face of Heathcliff's (and Cathy's) raw passion is echoed in Pietro's inability to face off Nino's street smart aggressions. The tension between the benefits of cultivation, and the raw rootedness of passionate nature (in Wuthering Heights) never really resolves, and we may reasonably expect this to be the case in Ferrante's saga too. Elena shares with Catherine Earnshaw this entanglement, but unlike in the case of Cathy and Heathcliff, we get the story firsthand from Elena. One mediator less.
Not a Bildungsroman
If we follow the emotional logic of the Neapolitan trilogy strictly as a bildungsroman and consider Lila as an ingredient - albeit an important one - for Elena's own character building as she develops into a strong independent woman, in contrast to Elena's perception of herself as timid and passive, then it follows that Lila's influence should begin to disappear when Elena finds her own feet. This is indeed what appears to happen towards the end of "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay".
However, if we did this, we would also be confronted with an apparent contradiction: Elena's world (of language, of culture, of middle classness, of mediated desires, of retreat into private life, of disconnection with the neighbourhood) would form a kind of Hegelian thesis to the antithesis of Lila's world (of raw dialect, of coarse manners, of working class suffering, of violence and forced sex, of the invasiveness of never-ending community and public life). If the restoration of her wholeness is brought about when she becomes "untrustworthy" and follows her heart, by rediscovering who she was even before she fell into culture, then here at the end of Book 3 we find that synthesis. Nino certainly fuses both culture (he's a published, respected intellectual in his own right) and the neighbourhood, and by uniting with him she is, we might conclude, securing for herself a new wholeness, a new synthesis. The best of all worlds. Or is it?
Wouldn't that be too Hegelian? That strikes me as a problem, because Hegel comes in for cutting commentary about two thirds into Book 3, in one of the most striking passages in the entire novel, just as Elena discovers feminist literature. She reads an essay entitled "We Spit on Hegel":
"Spit on Hegel. Spit on the culture of men, spit on Marx, on Engels, on Lenin. And on historical materialism. And on Freud. And on psychoanalysis and penis envy. And on marriage, on family. And on Nazism, on Stalinism, on terrorism. And on war. And on the class struggle. And on the dictatorship of the proletariat. And on socialism. And on Communism. And on the trap of equality. And on all the manifestations of patriarchal culture. And on all its institutional forms. Resist the waste of female intelligence. Deculturate. Disacculturate, starting with maternity, don't give children to anyone. Get rid of the master-slave dialectic. Rip inferiority from our brains. Restore women to themselves. Don't create antitheses. Move on another plane in the name of one's own difference. The university doesn't free women but completes their repression. Against wisdom. While men devote themselves to undertakings in space, life for women on this planet has yet to begin. Woman is the other face of the earth. Woman is the Unpredictable Subject. Free oneself from subjection here, now, in this present. The author of those pages was called Carla Lonzi." - p. 280Don't create antitheses. Is Elena in danger of having created an antithesis in Lila for her own sake? Is that why Lila always resists assimilation, that she understands this danger instinctively and cannot be a mere stepping stone for another - not even for her friend Elena? A response of sorts is formulated soon after in the same paragraph (my italics):
"I - after so much exertion - don't know how to think. Nor does Mariarosa: she's read pages and pages, and she rearranges them with flair, putting on a show. That's it. Lila, on the other hand, knows. It's her nature. If she had studied, she would know how to think like this." - p.281
Thus we return here to the question of Lila. She cannot be assimilated, and the fact that we get a sense of her through Elena's telling is already a kind of miracle. Education too, it seems, is not all it is cracked up to be. Yes, it can raise people out of poverty, but it also colludes with patriarchy, and hence is full of traps - and that is really the story of Elena's life from secondary school until she leaves Pietro.
Education, therefore, is best suited to those who have the right innate capacity for it. Someone like Lila. It's her nature ... She would know how to think like this. This assertion has an interesting parallel to Nietzsche's thinking, which also subverts Hegel's master-slave dichotomy by standing firmly on the side of a master morality, and deems slave morality a form of resentment. One wonders what he may have made of a character such as Lila. Most likely, he would have been impressed by her keen intelligence, resilience and creativity, and her innate resistance to any type of slave mentality.
Thus, in conclusion, I resist the temptation to call this saga a simple bildungsroman. Lila's character does not permit easy integration either into language or culture, and yet this series of novels is all about her. If Elena finds her an inspiration, so much the better for her. But labelling it a bildungsroman, at least one in the traditional sense, could make a mockery of the aspirations at the heart of this novel.
Lila tends to know what she wants - or more frequently, doesn't want - in any given situation, and so outpaces Elena when it matters: in matters of the heart, in matters of life. In that sense we get to know Lila belatedly, through Elena's eyes. Via Elena she appears like the woman of Carla Lonzi's proclamation that "Woman is the Unpredictable Subject". She has the uncanny ability to surprise, and as Elena says, with her there was never a way to feel that "things were settled."
But if Lila often surprises Elena - and us, as readers, via Elena - Lila herself seems less surprised at how things around her develop, at the ways of the neighbourhood, of events on the ground, at herself. When they happen, she knows what to do. Desire and violence, they have a logic. This logic might even eventually be discernable to the reader, in the afterglow of Elena's narration, even though its immediacy remains foreclosed as part of Lila's resistance. Yet one thing is for sure: that of which Lila is master follows, for her, as surely as a computer programmer's flow chart.
In the final instance, perhaps this: Lila as an anchor for a certain femaleness, a reference and a benchmark, and a reminder not to compromise. If patriarchy's strategy is to divide and conquer - through marriage, through children, through the oppression of domesticity - Lila, via Elena, shows what is possible when one becomes two, and two becomes many.