Near the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s series of novels about a complicated friendship between two women from the slums of Naples, the girls, then in elementary school, play hooky and sneak out of “the neighborhood,” their claustrophobic network of courtyards and stairwells filled with violence and poverty. Lenú and Lila aim for the sea. Though Naples is a port city, neither of them has seen the “vague bluish memory” of water. After hours of walking, Lila becomes suddenly afraid and turns them back, while Lenú, usually the timid one, discovers that distance “extinguished in me every tie and every worry.”
The Neopolitan Novels, as they are known, expand this dynamic tension between the pull of Naples, the city, and the expansion of the girls’ consciousness as Italy enters the modern era. This is a story of self-realization alongside the self-realization of a nation. Acutely sensitive to the workings of class and power, Ferrante subtly works in black market war profiteers, fascist collaborators, mafiosi, the workers’ movements and radical terrorism of the 1960s and ’70s, and the arrival of wealth and consumer goods to Italy’s new middle class. Ferrante attaches the story of Lenú and Lila to the history of postwar Italy in a way that never feels contrived.
That’s also the history of feminism in Italy, a story that remains unfinished. Lenú escapes the confines of the neighborhood thanks to her book smarts, but remains tethered to Lila, and to the alienation and difficulty that makes “the form of a female body break.” The burden of the physical, the invisible work that makes up women’s lives, is a recurring theme in Ferrante. Radical Italian feminists once proposed wages for housework, but Ferrante is writing, after all, in the Italy where Silvio Berlusconi hosts bunga bunga parties with underage girls, and jokes that to prevent rape, the country needs “as many soldiers as there are beautiful Italian women.” In Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, set in contemporary Italy, the protagonist has a breakdown trapped in her apartment. Her children whine and one falls ill; it’s unnervingly possible she may ignore them entirely. She mentally runs through her chores to calm herself. “The vomit stained sheets. Run the vacuum.” “Housecleaning,” is the last word of the chapter, sinking like a sentence.
I wonder if, for the American reader, part of Ferrante’s appeal is that her Italy — with its complicated women and its political history — is an antidote to popular destination literature and visions of expat romance like Eat, Pray, Love, Under the Tuscan Sun, or Beautiful Ruins. The next and final installment of the Neapolitan novels, which have become a surprise hit in the U.S., will be brought out in English this year (her website says only that an as yet untitled fourth volume in the series will be published in September 2015). In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for those hungering for more of Ferrante’s dark Naples and Italian feminist heroines.
A History of Contemporary Italy
Ferrante’s heroines, Lenú and Lila, are born in Naples in 1944, at the very end of World War II. In September 1943, American troops landed south of Naples and marched up the peninsula after the Germans, who retreated looting and killing along the way. Italy — a country then less than a century old — soon found itself “with national state authority having dissolved, two occupying armies and three Italian governments…claimed the obedience and allegiance of the Italians,” writes Paul Ginsborg in History of Contemporary Italy, an exhaustive accounting of Italian politics from the war to the 1980s, paying special attention the position of Italy’s poorest, in the South.
Naples, with over one million inhabitants, was devastated and impoverished by the war. Sewers and water systems barely functioned, Allied bombing left 200,000 homeless, and the black market commandeered what little supplies existed. Ginsborg quotes an Allied report describing “many hundreds of urchins” roaming the streets, “pimping, prostitution of minors, acting as ‘fences’ for stolen goods, etc.,” and “little girls ill and pregnant, at thirteen and even twelve years of age.” Even as Italy experienced enormous economic growth in the 20th century, the South continued to lag stubbornly behind, remaining until today the poorest part of Italy. Ginsborg also explains the consolidation of the reign of the mafia, romanticized in American mob movies and exposed as very real in Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s account of the mafia wars of the early 2000s. The children that Saviano finds fed into the Camorra’s violent underworld are modern-day remnants of the destitution that has long characterized Naples: the city’s reputation is still dirty, difficult, and dangerous.
In the spring of 1944, Mount Vesuvius erupted violently. American troops captured footage of villagers on the outskirts of Naples preparing to evacuate, holding a religious procession before billowing ash filled the streets and smashed their homes. It must have seemed like the end of the world.
This is the dark setting of The Skin, a novel by Curzio Malaparte, a former fascist and political shapeshifter, perhaps better known now for his pink modernist villa on the rocks of Capri, where Bridgitte Bardot sunbathes nude in Contempt. The book’s narrator is an Italian Army captain also named Malaparte who has been assigned to escort occupying American officers around the “dreadful Neopolitan mob.” (The novelist, born Kurt Suckert, invented his name, which means “the bad part,” the opposite of Bonaparte.) Dressed in the bullet torn uniforms of dead Allied soldiers, Malaparte and his troops now have “to show ourselves worthy of the shame of Italy,” a people simultaneously liberated and conquered. Malaparte’s Naples is lurid and apocalyptic. He applies caustic humor equally across the decaying pretensions of European aristocrats, the naïve crowds cheering the arrival of U.S. troops, and the dangerously blithe good faith of the Americans. Misogyny abounds: the only women are prostitutes and Nazi collaborators, easy metaphors for Italy’s prone postwar position.
But Malaparte’s chilling prose and bantering wit animate the most surreal horrors of postwar deprivation. The book’s finale is a frenzy at the summit of Vesuvius after its eruption, where supplicants pray and fling offerings into the volcano beneath the “blood-soaked sponge” of the moon. All the book’s cynicism rises to a sincere effort to make sense of the sacrifice the country made to war.
Discovery of the World
Luciana Castellina was 14 in 1943, when she began keeping a “political diary.” On the day it begins, she played tennis with the daughter of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The girl was called off the courts abruptly — her father had been turned out of government and arrested. Four years later, when her teenage journals end, Castellina has become a student radical and gone to volunteer building railroads in Communist Yugoslavia. Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini, is a memoir “reconstructed” from these diaries, so we get rather a lot of Castellina, now an elderly former politician and prominent figure on the Italian left, interrupting to explain her younger self. Nonetheless, the diary excerpts are charming. They begin with a dutiful student whose notebooks are marked with her fascist party membership number, to whom the war arrives as the sudden need to hide Jewish relatives, to smuggle rations, and to await the Allies while hiding from their air raids. Later, she learns about the resistance, becomes enmeshed in Communist politics and debates on modernist painting and the atom bomb. It was a historic intellectual moment, when fascism’s fall seemed to have created an opening for utopian political reforms. Though it may be hard to follow for someone unfamiliar with the history of the European left, there’s still something infectious and familiar in the adolescent excitement that declares, one day, “It’s two years since Rome was liberated. What have I learned? Almost nothing. My ideas are more confused than ever,” and on another, “I am happy with everything. The world is mine and I want everything.”
The Art of Joy
“The world is mine and I want everything” might be a motto for Modesta, the ironically named firebrand heroine of The Art of Joy, a novel by Goliarda Sapienza. Completed in 1976, the book didn’t find a publisher until decades later, saturated as it is with sex and blasphemy (one Italian critic called it “a pile of iniquity.”) If Ferrante elegantly weaves history through her protagonists’ lives, Sapienza’s Modesta drags the 20th century behind her by the hair. Born in 1900 in a peasant hut in Sicily, she rises through a mix of guile and happenstance to become the unorthodox matriarch of a prosperous family. Her purpose in life is the pursuit of pleasure and freedom from authority in any form: she battles Catholicism, fascism, Freudianism, and even the demands of lovers and children. She realizes very young in life “how many false concepts I had fallen victim to.” Self-educated in business, politics, and history, she determines to take up every word she encounters, “wipe away the mold, free them from the deposits of centuries of tradition, invent new ones, and above all discard and no longer use…the most corrupt ones, such as sublime, duty, tradition, self-denial, humility, soul.” The first half of Sapienza’s mammoth book is that breathless wreckage, as Modesta’s self emerges from an angry, eccentric, and impoverished child. Later, it sometimes lapses into didactic dialogue and tedious political exegeses. But the initial brilliance of the book is, as with Ferrante, in watching the formal evolution of the narrator’s voice from the sensual environs of childhood to a sharp awareness of herself and her place in history.