A woman’s husband leaves her, she’s determined not to lose it, she loses it, she gets herself back together: that’s the plot of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (2002). Olga, the narrator, a mother and stalled writer who’s 38 at the time of these events, knows that words like ‘angry’ are often used to diminish and dismiss legitimate grievances, and understands the staginess of ‘those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living’. You are a modern woman, a strong woman, she tells herself, not a knick-knack to be broken by a straying man. So it’s all the more disturbing, and believable, when her psychic defences begin to come apart, releasing torrents of compulsive, bilious rhetoric and leaving her exposed to the world with no roles or habits that might protect her from its impact.
The Days of Abandonment, like the books Ferrante published on either side of it, Troubling Love (1992) and The Lost Daughter (2006), was admired for its analysis of the perils of being a daughter, wife and mother, and for the wit and rawness of the narrator’s voice. (In Italy the three novels have been gathered in one volume as Cronache del mal d’amore, ‘Tales of Lovesickness’ or ‘Tales of Heartbreak’.) Part of the novels’ power over readers, and much of their cult appeal, has to do with the narrators’ brisk observations. Motherhood, one of them reflects while cleaning up some puke, can make her feel ‘like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping … leaving on me the odour and taste of their gastric juices’. Men ‘always have something pathetic about them, at every age’. Olga – who worries ‘that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine’ – finds much to say about love and sex after her faithless husband’s exit:
As a girl, I had fallen in love with Mario, but I could have fallen in love with anyone … We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex. We love his desire to fuck, we are so dazzled by it we think it’s the desire to fuck only us, us alone. Oh yes, he who is so special and has recognised us as special. We give it a name, that desire of the cock, we personalise it, we call it my love. To hell with all that, that dazzlement, that unfounded titillation. Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else … Time passes, one goes, another arrives.
Asked recently to name a book that made her laugh, Ferrante went with Portnoy’s Complaint, and like Philip Roth’s her novels are concerned, in a way that’s clever and distanced but also consciously intense, with giving voice to parts of the self that not everyone puts on display. There are other similarities: a provincial city – Naples, Newark – that functions as the centre of the universe; an emphasis on the struggle between anarchic self-expression and the imperatives of a traditionalist literary training; even, in her recent novels, a depiction of generational and national experience with a special focus on sexual politics and the new left. I don’t want to push the analogy much further, but calling her ‘the best angry woman writer ever’ – the camp-trash director John Waters’s jokey blurb – carries much the same order of insight as Jacqueline Susann saying, post-Portnoy, that she’d like to meet Roth but wouldn’t want to shake his hand.
Elena Greco, the heroine of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, shares quite a few biographical details with Olga. These details make her look like a stand-in for Elena Ferrante, but that’s an acknowledged pseudonym, which is where people get nervous. The worry – or, it seems, in some quarters, the hope – is that Ferrante is a front for a shadowy collective, a husband-and-wife team or, worse, a balding bloke whose guerrilla strike against identity-political orthodoxies got awe-inspiringly out of hand. Whoever’s pulling her strings scatters teasing allusions with one hand – Elena, ‘almost in secret’, researches an essay on ‘the invention of woman by men … Defoe-Flanders, Flaubert-Bovary, Tolstoy-Karenina, La Dernière Mode, Rose Sélavy and beyond’ – while, with the other, tapping out communiqués from a wholly credible author-figure. Ferrante’s written statements and interviews, many of them available in English in Fragments (2013), indicate that she grew up in postwar Naples, has a classics degree, studies, teaches, translates, is a divorced or separated mother, has spent time away from Italy, and writes under a pseudonym to protect her family’s privacy and ward off her inner censor. Personal publicity, she writes, would defeat the aim of her novels, which were assembled ‘precisely to give a less circumscribed meaning to individual experience’; the self on the page is fair game but ‘the rest is curiosity, academic publications, wars and skirmishes for visibility in the marketplace of culture.’
Personal identity, in Ferrante’s fiction, is rarely straightforward in any case, especially in the fraught, expressionistic early books. Besieged by socially allocated roles and ‘expropriated by … gazes’, the narrators are tossed by treacherous currents of identification and transference, and by ghosts from their Neapolitan pasts. ‘I was no I,’ we’re told in Troubling Love, a novel with the shape of a thriller – Delia, who’s escaped to Rome, returns to Naples to clear up her mother’s suspicious death – and the texture of a post-analytical bad dream. (She soon finds herself lurching through the city in a grubby dress and her mother’s saggy underwear, trailed by groping hands and creepy whispers in Neapolitan dialect, which is associated in all of Ferrante’s books with unspeakable ‘vulgarity’, shame and sexual squalor.) Olga, who’s escaped to Turin, comes unmoored in her story’s suspenseful central section, which modulates brilliantly between matter-of-fact detail and nightmarish inner journey. Trapped in her apartment with a dying dog, a swarm of ants, her sick ten-year-old son and her seven-year-old daughter, Ilaria, Olga begins to fear for her sanity when Ilaria chooses this moment to try on her clothes and make-up. ‘We’re identical,’ Ilaria says brightly, her cheeks rouged in a way that puts Olga in mind of the mandolin-playing dwarf-crones who haunted the funicular during her childhood. ‘The sentence,’ Olga writes,
disturbed me … What did it mean, we are identical, at that moment I needed to be identical only to myself. I couldn’t, I mustn’t imagine myself as one of the old women of the funicular. At the mere idea I felt a slight dizziness … Maybe, I thought, Ilaria herself wasn’t Ilaria. Maybe she really was one of those minuscule women of the Vomero, who had appeared by surprise … Or maybe not. Maybe for a long time I had been one of those old mandolin players, and Mario had discovered it and had left me. Without realising it, I had been transformed into one of them, a figure of childish fantasies, and now Ilaria was only returning to me my true image … This was the reality that I was about to discover, behind the appearance of so many years. I was already no longer I, I was someone else, as I had feared since waking up, as I had feared since who knows when.
Leda, whose solitary holiday on the Ionian coast in The Lost Daughter is disrupted by a brash group from Naples, ‘the black well I came from’, is made uneasy by children’s games too. Watching a beautiful young mother and her daughter playing with a doll, which they fail to give ‘a stable, constant voice’, Leda likens her irritation to ‘a slight twinge that … becomes an unbearable pain’. Her response is to steal the doll. The young mother’s dalliance with a handsome beach attendant causes her to review her own relationship with her grown-up daughters, whom she walked out on to have an affair with a famous scholar of E.M. Forster. Squeezing mud and seawater out of the doll, she starts thinking about her pregnancies, whereupon the doll disgorges a worm.
‘It seemed to me that something was no longer functioning in the organisation of internal and external,’ Elena Greco says of one heady moment, and that’s pretty much the way things go in Ferrante’s first three novels. There’s a certain amount of shock material, not all of it successful. Troubling Love, which deals with childhood sexual abuse, puts a shiny aesthetic varnish on the subject: in the manner of a screenplay, a very 1990s notion of recovered memory is used to create an elegant narrative structure. Yet The Days of Abandonment takes some beating when it comes to ferociously seamy and awkward sex scenes that leave both parties thoroughly humiliated. Ferrante has a cold, estranged eye for the performance of day-to-day life – ‘I smiled to show that I wasn’t hostile’; ‘we were wearing light, low-cut dresses, so that we would appear attractive’ – and, being intellectuals of one sort or another, Ferrante’s soliloquists have dramatic-ironic scruples about their frequent breaches of decorum. ‘Don’t regress,’ Olga tells herself. ‘Don’t give in to distracted or malicious or angry monologues.’ Sizzling tirades and distracted reveries follow.
Olga’s efforts to restrain herself have a snobbish dimension: crude displays of passion are for the backstreets of Naples. She’s also worried about setting a bad example by acting like the powerless women of the past, and dwells glumly on her hot-headed teenage judgment that the embittered figures in Beauvoir’s La Femme rompue were ‘sentimental fools … I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife with her lost love at the top of her thoughts. I was young, I had pretensions.’ Olga is in some sense a feminist writer, but in her crisis that’s another identity she finds herself half in, half out of. Ferrante too knows her feminist theory, but she wrote in 2002 that she had long since shaken off ‘theoretical preoccupations’ and started writing ‘without asking myself what I should be’. Her novels riff on and occasionally make mild fun of the somewhat abstract interests of Italian ‘difference feminism’, but they’re more concerned with dramatising experience, which might partly explain why they’ve gone down so well in the English-speaking world.
Those Who Leave is the third instalment of the ‘Neapolitan Novels’ (as they’ve been rebranded in English: in Italy they’re known as the ‘Brilliant Friend’ books), which tell a story about becoming the kind of person who knows her way around Luce Irigaray’s disciples. The internal chronology has Elena, nicknamed Lenuccia or Lenù, telling her story in the autumn of 2010. She works fast: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name (2012) and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay add up to 1220 pages in translation, with the recently published final instalment, Storia della bambina perduta, still to come. Lenù lives in Turin, where, one morning, in a set-up resembling the set-up of Troubling Love, she gets a phone call telling her that Raffaella Cerullo, nicknamed Lila, her closest childhood friend, has disappeared. ‘Lila is overdoing it as usual,’ she thinks. Annoyed by the thoroughness with which Lila turns out to have erased all traces of her own existence (an ambition she often spoke of), Lenù fires up her computer and gets to work on the story of their friendship.
It begins in an outlying district of Naples which at first seems almost outside history: a place of ogreish neighbours and haunted cellars, with more carts than cars and few temporal signposts beyond the odd oblique reference to the war. Dates fall into place only when Lenù is old enough to take less phantasmagoric stock of her surroundings: it’s the 1950s and Lenù and Lila, both born in August 1944, are the brightest girls in the neighbourhood. Lenù is blonde, pretty, diligent, biddable; Lila is dark, scrawny, scarily clever, immovably stubborn and coldly vengeful when crossed. This fairytale pairing stands in contrast to their surroundings, which are not at all like the sweetly fabular proletarian world depicted in Calvino’s stories of the 1950s. Fascists and the Camorra have the economy sewn up. Fathers routinely beat their wives and children; ‘women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.’ Love – ‘yes, as in the films’ – is a word ‘no one used in the neighbourhood’. Only years later does Lenù acquire the habit of brushing her teeth.
The postwar expansion of education offers a way out for those able to take it. A kindly teacher pulls rank on Lenù’s parents and she’s allowed to go to middle and then secondary school, ‘the school for rich people’. Her father, a wheeler-dealing porter, can get by without sending her out to work. Lila’s father, a violent shoemaker, can’t and Lila drops out after elementary school. (‘If one wishes to remain a plebeian,’ the teacher tells Lenù, less kindly, ‘he, his children, the children of his children deserve nothing. Forget [Lila] and think of yourself.’) Until then Lila has been the senior partner: she’s bolder, crueller, more effortlessly brilliant. But this is only the first of many reversals. Lenù’s essays on Virgil get marked down as inertly swottish until she starts to model them on Lila’s off-the-cuff talk. Lila, meanwhile, soaks up Greek grammar and whips through War and Peace while drawing up plans to relaunch the family business.
The other field in which the competitive yet emulative dynamic of their friendship plays out is sex. Here Lenù feels she starts with the upper hand. She’s spent her childhood being told that she’s pretty and Lila is a bit funny looking; besides, ‘I had bigger breasts.’ As their adolescence grinds on, however, she begins to feel plump and spotty while Lila fills out and magnetises the attention of every man who passes. To general amazement she gets engaged to Stefano Carracci, the son of a murdered black marketeer, partly because he’s willing to invest in her father’s shoeshop and partly to make the mobbed-up Solara brothers stop courting her. Lenù, who’s going out with a stolid boy from school, looks on as the happy couple glide through the streets ‘as if they were John and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting a neighbourhood of indigents’. She decides to lose her virginity on the night of Lila’s wedding, but her plans are made irrelevant by a narrative flourish: the Solaras show up at the reception, and a glance at the nastier one’s handmade footwear is enough to show Lenù, Lila and the reader that Stefano has sealed a deal with them. The marriage is doomed.
As the plot spreads out across the 1960s, the shifting balance of the women’s friendship continues to structure it, but the growing distance between them splits it into two strands. One follows Lenù as she’s ‘haloed by a high level of culture’ via a scholarship to Pisa, where she gets a classics degree and writes a well-received first novel. The other follows Lila, who pays her husband back for raping her on their wedding night by having an affair with a brilliant student called Nino – Lenù had wanted him first – and having a child she lets the world know isn’t Stefano’s. By 1968, when Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay picks up the threads, Lila has left Stefano, now a shell of a man, and found work in a grim factory on the other side of town. Lenù is promoting her novel, house-hunting in Florence with her fiancé, a well-born young professor, and learning how to behave among moneyed socialists. As the student movement splinters and the ‘age of lead’ begins, Lila’s working life serves as a conscience or counterpoint to the narrator’s journey through the social and intellectual world of the 1970s Italian left.
No one could accuse Ferrante of chewing more than she can bite off. On top of keeping the two main characters running, she has an enormous cast to track and develop: the Adas, Alfonsos, Antonios, Carmelas, Enzos, Gigliolas, Mariarosas, Marisas, Pasquales, Pinuccias, Rinos and so on, each of whom gets a generous dab of personality and an evolving storyline. Each book comes with a helpful if intimidating cast list, incorporating updated capsule biographies, but you need to consult it less often than you might think. Each book also has a frame narrative of sorts in which Lenù, at the age of 66, reflects cryptically on her feelings about Lila, feelings shaped by as yet unrevealed events, and explains her detailed knowledge of things she didn’t witness. (A cache of Lila’s papers and some all-night conversations mostly see to that.) Not surprisingly, these devices look mechanical from time to time, and as a character Lenù intermittently suffers from being-the-narrator syndrome, shuffling uncomfortably through scenes she’s been bodged into on slender dramatic pretexts. The sudden zoom in on the telltale shoes isn’t the only soapy touch: there are plenty of cliffhangers and questions about whether X is going to get off with Y.
Ferrante handles all this with great efficiency in a style that moves easily between laconic scene-setting, dialogue and metaphorical commentary, some of it icily incisive. (Stefano works himself up on the wedding night by saying that Lila’s pissing him off. ‘He repeated that remark two or three times, each time louder, as if to assimilate fully an order that was coming to him from very far away, perhaps even from before he was born. The order was: be a man, Ste’ …’) As Lenù moves up in the intellectual world she’s increasingly uneasy about talking at the requisite level of abstraction in ‘correct’, standard Italian. ‘I felt encouraged and cautiously went on to some reflections on how to reconcile individuality and universality’ is a typical line; in the 1970s she catches herself speaking of ‘reactionary reformism (I used that phrase)’ and mouthing other ‘clichéd phrases of dissent’. Impressed by Carla Lonzi’s Let’s Spit on Hegel (1970), a call for women to ‘move on another plane in the name of one’s own difference’, she joins a feminist reading circle. ‘I was bored … It seemed to me I knew well enough what it meant to be born female.’
Lenù, we understand, is a born realist novelist, poorly equipped for being a theoretician; she is also a self-willed young woman whose background makes her impatient with wealthy radicals. A former boyfriend tells her she’s petit bourgeois, that her first novel deals only in ‘petty love affairs and the desire for social ascent … This, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels.’ Yet the novels she’s co-starring in are filled with musings on feminine identity as well as straight-up doses of ‘stuff that men don’t want to hear’, as a minor character puts it. The Story of a New Name celebrates Lila’s escape from the role of Signora Carracci: at one point she takes scissors to a giant photo of herself modelling a wedding dress and hangs the ‘cruelly shredded’ results in her shop. Lenù steadily logs the casual harassment she’s expected to put up with at every level of society as well as Lila’s discoveries about sexual exploitation on the factory floor. We’re shown a doctor being pissy about prescribing contraception and told a fair amount about unsatisfying goings on in 1970s bedrooms.
The friendship at the centre of the plot is another occasion for self-reflexive gestures. ‘I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing,’ Lenù says, but Lila’s wish to be expunged from the record means there’s a hostile edge to the project too. As the pages pile up, Lenù starts to think of her friend as a rival creator, bending people to her purposes ‘like characters in a story’ and disrupting the flow of the narrative: ‘Yes, it’s Lila who makes writing difficult.’ The grumbling is characteristic of their relationship, which has been marked by mixed emotions and mixed motives from the start. (The idea, Ferrante wrote in 2011, is to show ‘how the one draws strength from the other … not only in the sense of helping each other but also in the sense of ransacking, of stealing feeling and intelligence, taking energy away from each other’.) At the same time, it makes each of them look like the other’s double, or one of the earlier narrators split down the middle, with Lenù in charge of the architecture and clever observations, and Lila looking after the moments of existential terror. The terror is real enough, and even if you don’t always believe in Lila, you end up believing absolutely in Lenù and in the self-sufficiency of Ferrante’s writings.