By Nivriti Butalia
Lila’s eyes narrowed.
I wish I had counted the number of times Lila’s narrowing eyes occur in the four books that make up The Neapolitan Novels. Does Elena Ferrante, the author, like repetition? Did she forget how often she resorts to it or was the descriptor deliberate? It’s there, a lot. In My Brilliant Friend, in The Story of a New Name, in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and in, The Story of the Lost Child, all published between 2012 and 2014.
I wondered also, is it out of place for your translator — Ann Goldstein, in this case — to point out a phrase that crops up again and again? But again, surely that’s the editor’s job. More than anything, I wanted to know, did these perpetually narrowing eyes bother anyone else? And that is my sole “criticism” of The Neapolitan Novels. Everything else I have to say is gush-gush. I even gifted two copies of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, to a couple of friends last week. As some or the other literary person had blurbed: “Everyone should read everything with Ferrante’s name on it” (Eugenia Williamson, turns out, in The Boston Globe).
Elena Ferrante’s name has been in my head since the writer’s identity was exposed by a journalist in 2016. I thought it quaint that someone would still use a pseudonym. Like, wow, not everyone thinks the point of writing books is to corral yourself in a bubble of panel discussions and cheese and grape evenings.
I was curious about who this person was whose identity some journo was so hell-bent on revealing that he followed a money trail to a publishing house, or some such time-consuming route. The disclosure of her identity is a separate story. Whether she’s Anita Raja or Elena Ferrante, how does it matter? Her books have their readers. And joining that gang, I wondered how much better must the experience be to read her in Italian. Are there more nuances to this line in Italian that don’t carry over well to English: “I felt like a drop of rain on a spider web and I was careful not to slide down.”
Jealousy is a great motivator. It makes you do things that you’ve put off for no good reason. In this case, I was jealous and subconsciously motivated. A friend was getting lit-recos from this other (younger) person instead of talking them over with me. That bristled. I know how my mind works. I upped my game and read them all so I could later casually say, “Ferrante? Yea, of course. Done, read, you must read them.” Petty, I know. But in the interest of literature, everything works. And when you’re done reading, you’re done being jealous of people who’ve read them.
And so, I read The Neapolitan Novels last month. I had read one book of Ferrante’s last year, The Lost Daughter. But thanks to jealousy triggers mentioned above, I started The Neapolitan Novels.
They’re four books, even though it’s one story and the author has said in an interview that she considers them a single novel. It’s the story of the lives of Raffaella (“Lila”) Cerullo and Elena (“Lenù”) Greco, two kids who grew up in a crummy neighbourhood in Naples. Lenù always thought Lila was “the brilliant person who since she was a child had the capacity to take the disorder from your head and heart and give it back to you well organised, or if she couldn’t stand you, to confuse your ideas and leave you depressed.”
At another point, Lenù wonders of Lila: “Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me?”
Which two women haven’t at some point competed? It reminded me of one of my closest friends and our slightly perverse behaviour in college. Whenever one of us would eat a chocolate, we shared it with the other, exactly half-half — not out of generosity, but to make sure that the other person also got fat. We would laugh knowingly, wicked, and on the same page. We would compete in our vanities.
In Ferrante’s pages, I recognised myself repeatedly. The story is about me and my friends then in as much as it is about any two girls throwing their insecurities and affections at each other over a lifetime as they figure themselves out. HBO is turning the book into a 32-part TV series to release later this year, by the way. Filming is on in Italy.
These women are cats, fighting with each other. In another phase of their lives, they’re also cats fighting for each other. Both want to be a bit like the other. There’s envy, there’s love, there’s ambition, resentment. The book drips with killer lines. At another point, Lenù says of one character: “She was too much a friend to all for me to feel sure of our bond.”
It’s addictive stuff. I annotated like a mad woman. The lines highlighted probably say something too.
“Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them.”
“We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighbourhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two — I thought — understood one another. We together, we alone, knew how the pall that had weighed on the neighbourhood forever, that is, ever since we could remember, might lift at least a little if Peluso, the former carpenter, had not plunged the knife into Don Achille’s neck…”
“Maybe in the face of abandonment, we are all the same, maybe not even a very orderly mind can endure the discovery of not being loved.”
“For infidelities to have their real impact, some lovelessness has to develop first.”
If why we read is to recognise human nature, and to hone a deeper understanding of ourselves, Elena Ferrante should be compulsory reading.
Nivriti has a problem with bookstores in the city that stock only the first two volumes of the series