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The grandmaster of Naples

Simon Willis finds Elena Ferrante’s dark tale of friendship builds an intolerable pressure

Simon Willis | November/December 2013

ENGLISH TITLE The Neapolitan Novels
AUTHOR Elena Ferrante
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE Italian
TRANSLATOR Ann Goldstein

Elena Ferrante refuses to compromise. She keeps her identity secret, and never publicises her novels, preferring to allow them to speak for themselves with their sharp, unadorned prose. Her latest, "The Story of a New Name", is the second part of a tetralogy-in-progress, "The Neapolitan Novels". But you have to read the first part, "My Brilliant Friend", first.

Together they cover 800 pages in Ann Goldstein's translation, its limpid surface revealing dark depths. Both titles refer to Lila, whose disappearance in her 60s is the catalyst for Elena Greco, her friend since childhood and Ferrante's narrator, to tell the story of their lives. "We'll see who wins this time," Elena says, giving an early hint of how those lives have gone. They form a kind of double helix bonded by an energy that both attracts and repels. This is a story about friendship as a mass of roiling currents—love, envy, pity, spite, dependency and Schadenfreude coiling around one another, tricky to untangle. Ferrante is a devastating examiner, laying sorority bare. "I wanted something to happen to her," Elena says of the pregnant Lila, "so the baby wouldn't be born."

The setting is post-war working-class Naples. Ferrante makes its violence and conservatism vivid and active. It squeezes Lila, "that terrible, dazzling girl" with a sharp mind and a pugnacious tongue, like a vice. In the second book she is blunted by a brutal marriage, her talent constricted into self-destruction. The novels' scope heightens their power: we see the child in the adult. Ferrante moves her details like a grandmaster, amassing small events to build intolerable pressure. You wish Lila's self-immolations didn't happen. You know they have to. ~ SIMON WILLIS

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