I finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet yesterday. I know there’s been a lot of hype about these novels, but it is entirely justified. Actually, I write “these novels” but this is actually just one long novel, distributed across four printed volumes. For those who don’t know, it concerns the relationship between two women, Elena (or Lenu or Lenuccia) – the narrator – and Lila (or Lina) from childhood to early old age, and their mutual relationship to “the neighbourhood”, a working-class district of Naples and the many other families who live there. It is a difficult friendship, infected with rivalry, jealousy and resentment from the start. Lila is both intelligent and impulsive, spiky and demanding, capable of both extraordinary determination and of self-neglect and remains forever tied to the district; Lenu eventually enjoys worldly success and social evelation, but, in her own mind, is forever in the shadow of her “brilliant friend”.
In its historical span, from the 1950s to the 2000s, the novel takes in contemporary Italian history from the time when Christian Democrats and Communists dominate the political scene, through years of political radicalism and then violence and onto corruption and decay. Except the corruption and decay are always there in the neighbourhood, personified by the Solaras, the local representatives of the Camorra, with whom everyone must deal in some way or other.
It is a novel about women, about what women want and don’t want from men, and about extraordinary violence and the threat thereof. Men come off badly, they are fickle, selfish, violent, unreliable. In the neighbourhood, among the men, only the Communists are sufficiently restrained by their political education to treat women with a minimum of respect.
It is a novel about class and its injuries, the sense that smart working-class women have of being excluded by invisible social barriers; the attitudes of the wealthy intellectual left, happy to patronise the workers (thought understanding little) but always being clear about their own superiority.
It is a novel about hierarchies: about the local hierarchies that matter enormously to some (those who stay) and how those become less relevant to those who attach themselves to other scales of value (literary, intellectual). And it is a novel about place: about Naples, yes, but in essence about any poor working-class district or estate and the possibility of leaving it through education but of that education making identity problematic.
I think I’ve managed to write all that without giving up any significant plot details. I’d like to see a film made, but one not set in Naples but somewhere else. Perhaps Liverpool or Baltimore, somewhere else with poverty, class, crime and community. Maybe race could be a part of such a film. I’d like that because it would make clear how much is universal in this book rather than being tied to Italy alone. Read it.