How to explain that feeling of astonishment and relief that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet engenders for so many readers, especially her recent Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and concluding volume? It’s easier perhaps to talk about the tumultuous lives of Elena and Lila, their determination to do the very things that will destroy them, the complex and contradictory plots of female friendships. Easier perhaps to ponder Ferrante’s reclusiveness and speculate on her identity rather than what she reveals about our own. Easier to talk about female friendship rather than face the dark underbelly of all human relationships. In the end, easier to find some way — perhaps any way — to avoid the wounds Ferrante opens and probes for 1,500 pages. What is Ferrante dissecting and how does she keep us attending breathlessly in her operating room?
The Neapolitan quartet is, among other things, a novel of expectations and friendship, not only Elena and Lila’s, but by extension those of women from less-than-affluent circumstances during a period of great social change in the later 20th century. What is possible for them and the men in their lives? Against those possibilities and with the framework of European feminist thinking, Ferrante explores their passionate desires and social limitations. I’ll venture that her encompassing vision of human experience, the aliveness of her characters, and her unique voice rank with those of William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens.
1. La Frantumaglia
Ferrante’s female characters suffer from la frantumaglia. The Italian verb frantumare means to break into pieces, to shatter. Frantumazione, a noun, means a breaking or a shattering, and frantume are the shards themselves. According to Ferrante, in her Paris Review interview, la frantumaglia is a Neapolitan dialect word meaning “bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head not always comfortably.” There is no comparable word in English, though unquestionably the feeling exists. La Frantumaglia is also the title of a collection of Ferrante’s essays and responses to interviewers. The book is not yet available in English, but here is a translation of Ferrante’s description.
From her dialect my mother left me one specific word that she used to describe how one felt when one was pulled here and there by contradictory feelings that tore her apart. She said that she had inside a frantumaglia. La frantumaglia (she pronounced it frantum-maglia) depressed her. At times it made her dizzy, caused her a metallic taste in her mouth. It was the word for a discomfort, illness not otherwise definable, manifested out of the throng of heterogenous things in her head, like refuse on turbid water of the brain. La frantumaglia was mysterious, caused mysterious acts, was the origin of all suffering not attributable to a single obvious reason…Often la frantumaglia made her cry, too, and the word remained in my mind from childhood to define first of all the crying that is sudden or without a reason one is aware of: tears of frantumaglia.
Ferrante says that these bits and pieces are the origins of her novels. Indeed, all of Ferrante’s novels recreate la frantumaglia both in structure and content. For example, in the Story of the Lost Child, Elena begins a complicated relationship with Nino Sarratore with whom she has been infatuated at various times since childhood and who is also a fraught connection with Lila, Elena’s friend and one of Nino’s previous lovers. It is as if Elena goes to a high school reunion and learns that someone she’s always had a crush on shares her feelings, and thus impassioned, the two pursue a relationship consisting of equal parts lust, self-deception, fantasy, rage, guilt, despair, and exhaustion.
The following scenes occur in quick succession early in The Story of the Lost Child and together they recreate something of the experience of la frantumaglia. Against the advice of Lila, her mother, and others Elena has finally left Pietro, her husband, and her children and is attending an academic conference with Nino in Montpellier, France. Initially, she feels liberated.
Of the days in Montpellier I remember everything except the city…I felt the limitations of my outlook, of the language in which I expressed myself and in which I had written…It seemed to me evident how restrictive, at thirty-two being a wife and mother might be…I felt freed from the chains I had accumulated over the years…It was marvelous to cross borders, to let oneself go within other cultures, discover the provisional nature of what I had taken for absolute.
When the truth of earlier warnings about Nino’s character soon becomes apparent, Elena ignores these signs. The two have separate rooms, she says, but “We slept together, clinging to each other, as if we feared that a hostile force would separate us in sleep.” Then, Elena assumes a less liberated stance:
During the day I went with him to the assembly hall and, although the speakers read their endless pages in a bored tone, being with him was exciting; I sat next to him but without disturbing him.
At lunch, Nino converses in various languages, and Elena is “struck by Nino’s mobility.” Her pride in Nino and in their relationship coincides with doubts about herself. A kind of disappearance of self occurs:
There was a single moment when he changed abruptly. The evening before he was to speak at the conference, he became aloof and rude; he seemed overwhelmed by anxiety. He began to disparage the text he had prepared, he kept repeating that writing for him wasn’t as easy as it was for me, he became angry because he hadn’t had time to work well. I felt guilty. Was it our complicated affair that had distracted him? —and tried to help…To me the speech seemed as dull as the ones I had heard in the assembly hall, but I praised it and he calmed down…That evening one of the big-name academics…invited him to sit with him. I was left alone, but I wasn’t sorry.
So great is Elena’s admiration for and pride in Nino that she is happy to sit back unnoticed. This stance, however, leaves her an outsider in other ways, too. For example, when Elena and Nino meet a French couple, Augustin and Colombe, Elena observes that Nino and Augustin “began to criticize the speakers. Colombe joined in…with a slightly artificial gaiety. The maliciousness soon created a bond.” Elena observes but doesn’t participate in their petty bonding.
In the next paragraph, Elena thinks of her children and is drawn away from Nino and the “liberating” experience of being with him.
Suddenly my world and theirs were back in communication…And the children’s bodies rejoined mine, I felt the contact violently. I had no news of them for five days, and as I became aware of that, I felt an intense nausea, an unbearable longing for them. I was afraid of the future…
Elena is no longer free, no longer able to do as she wishes, and this reality humiliates her. Though it is after midnight, she telephones Pietro to ask about the children, and Pietro rejects her inquiry. Frightened, she goes to Nino’s room for consolation, but hesitates when she overhears Nino talking to someone, perhaps his wife, on the telephone. Nino denies that he has contacted his wife. Elena says:
“I refused for a long time to make love, I couldn’t, I was afraid that he no longer loved me. Then I yielded, in order not to have to believe that it was all already over.”
Elena becomes even more anxious and insecure. In an effort to hang on to Nino and their time together, she urges that they accept the invitation to return to Paris with Augustin and Colombe, but this decision only raises more questions about their relationship:
The journey wasn’t always pleasant: sometimes I became sad. And I quickly formed the impression that Nino was talking to Colombe in a tone that he didn’t use with Augustin, not to mention that too often he touched her shoulder with his fingertips. My bad mood gradually worsened, as I saw the two of them were getting very friendly. When we arrived in Paris they were the best of friends, chatting away; she laughed often, smoothing her hair with a careless gesture.
When Elena asks Nino about his feelings for Colombe, he is irritated:
“Do you want to quarrel?”
“Then think about it: how can I like Columbe if I love you?”
It scared me when his tone became even slightly harsh; I was afraid I would have to acknowledge that something between us wasn’t working.
Despite her belief in her own liberation, Elena finds no reassurance or security in her own talents.
It was as if, since I loved Nino and he loved me, that love made everything good that happened to me and would happen to me nothing but a pleasant secondary effect.
Elena is not far from the mark. Somewhat later, she tells Nino about the success of the negotiations to have her work published in France.
He seemed very excited. But, then, sentence by sentence, his displeasure emerged.
“Maybe you don’t need me anymore,” he said…”You’re so involved in your own affairs there’s not even a tiny spot left for me.”
Nino demands Elena meet him in Naples for Christmas and then fails to show up. Elena says, “I didn’t have the strength to leave him.” Still later Nino confesses that he had earlier prevented the publication of one of her articles because “I couldn’t bear that you were so good.” Tellingly, Elena says, “Suddenly, starting from that moment, I felt that I could always believe him.” Ferrante discusses this feminine strategy of disappearance in her Paris Review interview:
It’s a feeling I know well. I think all women know it. Whenever a part of you emerges that’s not consistent with some feminine ideal, it makes everyone nervous, and you’re supposed to get rid of it in a hurry…If you refuse to be subjugated, violence enters in.
What could be more violent than Nino’s cavalier disregard for Elena and her work, especially when it is disguised as love?
Ferrante’s minute dissection of this constant oscillation in women’s psychological and emotional experience, perhaps especially in relationship with men, is not duplicated elsewhere in serious fiction that I’m aware of. Proust’s lapidary observations document from a sociologist’s distance while Elena’s frank and frequently unpleasant revelations arise from insight within and in the moment. Elena’s denial of what is happening with Nino is not merely ironic, as we might expect with a somewhat unreliable narrator, but horrifying, as if we’re looking into the abyss with her and are as powerless as she to avoid it. In this way, both the organization and structure of the writing and the content itself are the experience of la frantumaglia. The reader shares Elena’s desperation and desire to escape, but her ongoing uncertainty keeps us turning the pages because we cannot look away.
2. Il Quartiere
Ferrante depicts la frantumaglia as an inherent state of mind, but we see that it is based in what society and culture demand of women, particularly women with backgrounds like Elena and Lila’s. Americans with their orientation to land, space, and future may find it difficult to imagine or understand how the pull of Elena’s Neapolitan neighborhood could so completely inform Elena and Lila’s lives and their decisions. Americans like to consider their origins much less important than they are, and typically believe social mobility more possible than it likely is. They often regard their neighborhood as a temporary location, something that can be established anew wherever one goes and likely improved upon. Hence, we have “starter houses.” I think this attitude is reflected in the complaints I sometimes hear that Elena is “too self-involved” and “should get over herself.” After all, she went to school and bettered her situation. She did well. She succeeded. She got out. It was unfortunate that Lila didn’t go to school, but she bettered herself anyway, maybe more so than Elena.
American social mobility is never a realistic possibility for Elena or Lila no matter how much education or status each gains or whatever their talents and skills. That this could be the case may seem incomprehensible to Americans, but Italians readily understand the pull and push of the quartiere, the neighborhood. It is the place that defines you and your social class from birth, especially if you are poor like Elena and Lila’s families, the Cerullos and the Grecos. Historically, Italian cities like Naples have been organized around parishes. Though it may be less true today, there is typically a church, a piazza where people gather, and a street where people both live and make their livings. The residents seldom leave the quartiere, and some live their entire lives within a very few, crowded blocks. This miniature society has its own history, social classes, politics, wars, grudges, intrigues, and love affairs. Gossip and custom are its currency, and fear and violence its weapons. The permanent influence of the quartiere is much more encompassing than that of most American neighborhoods.
As in the novels of Elsa Morante and Vasco Pratolini, the quartiere in Ferrante’s novels has a persona and is a character. This vivid sense of place gives a particular energy to Ferrante’s novels similar to the role of place in Faulkner’s south, Dickens’s London, and Proust’s drawing rooms. The Snopes and the Solaras have much in common. Pip seems as ambitious and conflicted in his expectations as Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are in theirs. Issues of status and class pervade the works of all of these writers.
The quartiere marks Elena no matter how far she goes or how high she rises. Montpellier offers her new perspective, but it is temporary:
the impression that my boundaries had burst and I was expanding…and was “proof that the neighborhood, Naples, Pisa, Florence, Milan, Italy itself were only tiny fragments of the world and that I would do well not to be satisfied with those fragments any longer…I felt the limitations of my outlook, of the language in which I expressed myself and in which I had written…it was marvelous to cross borders, to let oneself go within other cultures, discover the provisional nature of what I had taken for absolute.
From her new perspective, Elena views Lila with a certain degree of smugness:
She was mired in the lota, the filth, of the neighborhood, she was satisfied with it. I, on the other hand, in those French days, felt that I was at the center of chaos and yet had tools with which to distinguish its laws.
I noted…the rigidity of the perimeter that Lila had established for herself. She was less and less interested in what happened outside the neighborhood. If she became excited by something whose dimensions were not merely local, it was because it concerned people she had known since childhood. Even her work, as far as I knew, interested her only within a very narrow radius…she had never moved…
Elena’s exchanges with her in-laws belie her claims of escape from these Neapolitan origins.
[Elena’s father-in-law] began to praise Nino, but not with the absolute support of years earlier. He said that he was very intelligent…but—he said, emphasizing the adversative conjunction—he is fickle…Sarratore is intelligence without traditions…
When Elena asks Adele, her mother-in-law, what “intelligence without traditions” means, Adele replies:
That he’s no one. And for a person who is no one to become someone is more important than anything else. The result is that this Signor Sarratore is an unreliable person.
“I, too, am an intelligence without traditions.” [Elena says]
Yes, you are, too, and in fact you are unreliable.
Despite her remarkable success as a writer, the quartiere remains Elena’s milieu, drawing her back to where she came from. She acknowledges that it is the source and subject of her writing and doubts that she can write if she loses contact with her origins. Lila who has never left is the conduit by which Elena maintains this creative lifeline and a source of inspiration. For Ferrante, the quartiere (and by extension the city) is a mythic place and exerts a mythic power.
Unlike many writers, Ferrante is not concerned with beauty of form or with pretty writing per se. Her prose is intentionally raw and direct. In fact, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that Ferrante’s work is fiction, not memoir, when the boundary between fiction and reality seems so thin. Similarly, she turns the conventions of fiction to her own purposes. From the Paris Review interview:
I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn” and “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.” And later, I use plots, yes, but, I have to say, I can’t respect the rules of genres…In the Neapolitan Novels, the plot avoided every kind of trap set by fixed rules and convention.
Though Ferrante’s plots are as entertaining and compelling as those of detective stories, she has a larger purpose that is founded in the cultural and social changes in the conditions of women starting in the 20th century and supported by her continuing commitment to feminism. Again, from her Paris Review interview:
I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction, women’s literature — they made me an adult.
My experience as a novelist…culminated, after twenty years, in the attempt to relate, in a writing that was appropriate, my sex and its difference.
Ferrante also identifies Morante’s first novel, Menzogna e Sortilegio (House of Liars), as inspiration for her own explorations of the intersection of passion and societal demands. She is committed to saying the unsayable. From her Vanity Fair interview:
Often that which we are unable to tell ourselves coincides with that which we do not want to tell, and if a book offers us a portrait of those things, we feel annoyed, or resentful, because they are things we all know, but reading about them disturbs us. However, the opposite also happens. We are thrilled when fragments of reality become utterable.
I don’t intend to spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet had the incredible pleasure of reading The Story of the Lost Child and will instead simply offer the observation that the conclusion for me marks these novels as a full account of what it is to be an artist and a woman in our time. Elsewhere, Ferrante has likened the quartiere to the labyrinth, and one imagines Lila the figurative minotaur at its center. I believe Elena and Lila can be seen as singular, two sides of the same figure. Elena cannot write without Lila. Lila cannot speak without Elena. It doesn’t give away the end of the story to say that only when Elena slays the minotaur, i.e. her dependence on Lila for inspiration and creative energy, can she finally believe her work is truly her own. Only by taking back the power she attributes to Lila can she truly leave the quartiere.
Ferrante validates women’s experience in a way that recognizes our common humanity. Her work distinguishes between who we are and the imprint of social class and origins. It may seem a stretch to consider Ferrante in the same breath with Proust, Faulkner, and Dickens, but I’m convinced of her stature as one of the greatest writers and artists of this or any other time. All give us a world of such scope and insight that they establish another reality within which we can understand our own experience in ways that permit us to be more integrated and whole than we otherwise would be. If this is not truly the greatest art, what is?