Life is full of entanglements. And when two lives are as entangled as those of the protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels it becomes a moot point as to who it is that really leaves and who remains. Elena Greco has found literary success with the publication of her first novel, as well as a certain notoriety, and an enduring confidence in her power to effect change — she thinks it is positive change — in the lives of those dear to her. Her counterpart, Lila Cerullo, has found obscurity and destitution after a failed marriage, a failed love affair, and an unwanted birth. Yet, as ever, it is Lila and not Elena who seems to be in control of her own destiny. Even Elena’s marriage to a well-connected but dull academic and her new life in Florence cannot free her from the suspicion that far from escaping the mire that is her childhood neighbourhood in Naples, she is ever at risk of sinking back into petty jealousies and crude emotions that suffocated her in her youth.
The contrast between Lila and Elena is both sharper in this third novel in the series as it is more subtle. Elena is full of high politics and ideas about the class struggle, while Lila is being abused and maltreated by voracious overlords in a dismal Neapolitan factory. Elena has access to the power of the press and highly placed friends, but Lila knows that real power still lies at the sharp end of a knife. Elena is frustrated by her inability to help Lila in any meaningful way. Lila, on the other hand, desires only that Elena live the life of integrity that would somehow, in its purity, redeem Lila’s sorry and sordid present condition. But for Ferrante, all contrasts are at best momentary and reversal after reversal consistently inverts expectation and interpretation. The effect is bewildering.
At times this third novel can feel cerebral, almost passionless, as Elena self-consciously narrates the raising of her own consciousness. Have we strayed into the politics of the personal? Perhaps. But the real has its own demands and Elena’s suppression of her own passionate nature has repercussions, unlooked for but perhaps not unexpected. By the end of the novel, Elena is literally taking flight for the first time (a journey from Rome to Montpellier, in France) even as, she can’t help noticing, the floor under her feet trembles.
I remain riveted. And somewhat in awe of Ferrante’s skill at juggling huge political themes whilst rooting everything in the clinging mud of that Neapolitan neighbourhood from whence Elena and Lila sprang. Who knows what might yet flower in the remaining books in this series? I, for one, can hardly wait to read on.
- The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, book 2 in the Neapolitan Novels series
- My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, book 1 in the Neapolitan Novels series