In a rare interview with LA Times in 2018, Elena Ferrante, universally-celebrated, elusive (the name is a pseudonym) author of the Neapolitan novels, was asked about her fascination with Naples. Her response: ‘In the past, I used to think that only in Naples did the lawful continuously lose its boundaries and become confused with the unlawful, that only in Naples did good feelings suddenly, violently, without any break, become bad feelings. Today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples, and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask.’
In the Neapolitan quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child – the friendship between two women is shaped by this volatile city, where Vesuvius looms on the horizon and the threat of danger lurks behind every corner. The books begin with an elderly Lenù discovering that her lifelong friend, Lila, has disappeared from the impoverished neighbourhood where they grew up, which prompts her to write the story of their friendship. Her motives are unclear – is it an act of love, or of revenge? The following four books take us through this complicated relationship, spanning decades, regions of Italy, key political and cultural movements, and every major milestone in both of their lives. We see the story almost entirely from Lenù’s perspective, save for the inclusion of Lila’s own notebooks at certain points along the way, and from the very beginning it is clear that this is no easy, best-friends-for-life dynamic – Lenù’s response to her friend’s disappearance is that she is ‘overdoing it as usual.’ ‘I was really angry. We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself.’
This competitiveness underpins their friendship from the very beginning, when they come to each other’s attention as the two smartest girls in the class. The young Lenù is diligent and beloved by her teacher, but it is the scrawny, restless Lila, daughter of the shoemaker, who stands out with her fierce intelligence. Her genius is alienating, and she soon uses it as a weapon to inflict pain upon anyone who gets in her way – ‘her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.’ Only Lenù is fascinated, devoting herself to her studies ‘just so I could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl.’ From then on, their paths are forever intertwined. The foundation of their friendship stems from key episodes in childhood, where Ferrante’s skill as a storyteller really shines. Her attention to detail is extraordinary: so many of their childhood experiences foreshadow what happens in adulthood that you almost want to read the whole thing again to see how many clues you missed.
Like the city, Ferrante presents female friendship without a mask. It is not always pretty – there are moments of pure happiness, such as in childhood when they spend hours poring over a tattered old copy of Little Women, but the lives they lead are difficult, and the two friends are capable of inflicting the deepest pain upon one another. Most of this cruelty comes from Lila, who suffers under the limited options available for women of her class when the chance to escape through education is taken from her. Lenù realises early on that ‘no form could ever contain Lila … sooner or later she would break everything again.’ As a character, she is electric, charging the pages with energy – the books lose some their vitality in the chapters without her. And yet, even when they’re separated, Lenù finds the shadow of her friend everywhere, even in her own writing: comparing her work to one of Lila’s childhood stories, she discovers that ‘anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have to go back to that child’s packet, ten notebook pages, the rusty pin, the brightly coloured cover, the title, and not even a signature.’
The novels are truly stunning, and so is the TV adaptation that is about to start its second season, for which they plucked two actresses from obscurity to play the roles of Lila and Lenù. Ferrante explores issues ranging from political corruption to the struggles of motherhood, and what it means to be ashamed of where you came from, all in relation to two girls from a poor neighbourhood in Naples, going through life with the odds completely stacked against them. Some of its nuance may have been lost in translation, but her writing plunges straight to the heart of her characters’ inner psyche, leaving almost nothing unsaid. Lenù takes one look at Lila after a period of absence and immediately sees that ‘she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain in one echo in the mad sound of the brain in the other.’
I completely fell in love with these books when I read them last summer, and I honestly envy anyone who gets to read them with fresh eyes. I can’t think of any other author who pays such attention to the intricacies of female friendship; surpassing love interests and family members, Lenù and Lila are without a doubt the most important figure in each other’s lives. Even though only one is given the chance to complete her education, it is the encouragement the other that really makes this happen, proving that everything they achieve stems from this bond: ‘you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.’