Conditions of Emergence: On Elena Ferrante

William Deresiewicz in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_1393 Sep. 27 20.23At last, the cycle is complete. The “Neapolitan Novels” of the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante, a saga of female experience seemingly written in blood, which has taken the international literary world by frontal assault, has now concluded with its fourth installment. You no doubt have an inkling of the story. Two girls, growing up amid the poverty and violence of postwar Naples; two women, making their adulthood in a world of shifting possibilities and ideologies; two friends, locked in a lifelong embrace, sisters, rivals, doppelgängers, opposites. Lenù and Lila: Elena Greco, studious and disciplined, awkward, our narrator; Raffaella Cerullo, willful, tough, incendiary, stunning, her rival, muse, and subject. Around them in their neighborhood are friends, parents, siblings, teachers, shopkeepers, radicals, mad widows, camorristi—supplemented, as the narrative unwinds its length, by lovers, husbands, comrades, bosses, and children. By the end, the cast of characters has swelled to over 60—a Middlemarch of the Mezzogiorno.

Novels of friendship are rare, relative to the relationship’s importance in the modern age. Families fragment, partners come and go; friends are with you to the bitter end—and sometimes, as with Lenù and Lila, from the bittersweet beginning. But friendships, lacking the ceremonies of love or the structures of kinship, seldom offer tidy shapes for narrative consumption. Ferrante embraces the formlessness. The Neapolitan Novels, often pitched at the intensity of opera, have a narrative form that more closely resembles a soap opera. Season follows season, crisis follows crisis—rape, adultery, murder; abandonment, betrayal, retribution—but nothing is ever resolved. You wonder, away from the page, why you bother to put up with it. (Friends are sometimes like that, too.) Then you return, and are captivated by the drama once again.

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