An Italian Woman’s View of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

During my latest holiday back home in Italy, I finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend four-book saga. I found it gripping, heart-breaking and terribly honest. In this article I will try to explain why it resonated with me, a 25-year-old woman born and bred in Italy. I’ll also feature some opinions from people who read it, while trying not to spoil it too much. So here’s why you should be reading Elena Ferrante’s novels.

<img src="ElenaFerrante.jpg" alt="Elena Ferrante"/>

Why I’m Talking About Elena Ferrante

You’re probably going like: “Why am I reading about Elena Ferrante on Blogger On Pole?” WELL, I AM GLAD YOU ASKED. I was born in 1992, and I have lived abroad since 2011, and I feel that since I can remember there hasn’t been so much hype about an Italian author (or a realistic Italian story, for those of you who argue she isn’t Italian) both at home and abroad, so I want to talk about her.

The reasons are many, but I feel Elena Ferrante’s novels paint an unapologetic picture of Italy and of Italian life, with all its beauty and contradictions. So dive deep into this post if you want to know why. *MINOR SPOILER ALERT* but I’ve been a good girl and it’s not too bad.

Plausibility

I’m not a professional book reviewer, but I am a writer, a keen reader and, most of all, I’m Italian, the country where Elena Ferrante’s stories are set. Having both read the series, my mother and I wondered if it would look implausible to foreign eyes. How do non-Italians feel about this constant idea of “saving face” presented in the novel (e.g. families wanting children to marry in church to avoid shame, or striking deals with dubious characters for the sake of reputation)? Would readers be able to relate with parents demanding money from their children in the 1960s and 1970s, such a Victorian habit? How would they feel about Lila’s self-deprecating, persistent tendency to show how “ignorant” she is, or Elena’s need to appear educated?

I asked this to members of The Times‘ First Edition Facebook group, where people discuss and comment on the books they’ve read or are reading. Turns out none of them found the novels implausible, and that they were just able to appreciate different realities. Which just makes sense, I suppose, considering cultures are different, and you cannot decide over plausibility (on practical factors at least) unless you’ve lived it. If anything, maybe Ferrante’s novels show how situations that may appear Dickensian to foreign eyes still developed in modern in Italy.

The Unglamorous Face of Mafia and Italy

One of the reasons why I love Elena Ferrante’s work is that she has been able to show the world the unglamorous face of Italy. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country. I am a proud Italian and I enjoy my time back home as much as anybody else. However, I’d be lying if I said that in Italy everything works and that the whole mafia thing is just a bedtime story.

Elena Ferrante’s novels show my country’s contradictions. Beautiful cities get by even when they’re run by mafiosi. The North/South divide is as alive now as it was during the times she described, with the racism in between certain sections of Northern Italy towards the “Terroni” (an insult towards the “peasants” of the South) still alive and well, with the Northern League gaining a strong majority in the latest elections.

Like many Italians, I find the portrayal of the mafia in American movies extremely annoying. Sure, The Godfather and Goodfellas are masterpieces, but they have resulted in guys (it’s mostly guys) asking me: “Oh so the mafia is really a thing? And people die? COOL!” while abroad. News flash: it’s not cool. It’s not about loyalty, or cartoonish rivalries. It’s actually a problem that has affected my country for decades and has costed people their lives. The everyday reality of a mafia-ridden region is expressed perfectly in Ferrante’s stories.

Other stories were able to bring the horror of mafia and Italian criminality to life through books and the big screen, but Elena Ferrante does it in a different way. She talks about couples, families, children who grow up in an area governed by the Camorra (mafia in Naples), with organised crime taking the back seat up until big decisions are made and their life changes – e.g. when drug trafficking takes over Naples. In short, her portrayal isn’t a documentary – it’s the story that might affect your neighbour, your relative, your boyfriend. And it’s more believable because of that.

Mini review! 🌲🌳 Story of a new name was a slower read for me than My brilliant friend and didn’t blow me away like the first book did. But that’s probably because the characters weren’t new anymore. However, the book hit a slump in the middle, I didn’t enjoy Lila’s behaviour and I didn’t like Nino, which was odd because I loved both in book 1. It soon became clear why.. they soon came out of their unnatural roles and reverted to their underlying selves. Lila, fearless, experiences love, the mad kind. Overpowering, all consuming love. Then motherhood. Her unpredictable behavior and strong, passionate force brings the story to life. Lenu advances in her studies, growing more into the woman she wants to be. Her anxieties were not lost on me. Nor were her highs from her achievements. The see-saw of their friendship is prominent throughout. One goes up, the other is down. The furore is unbelievably human. I have no better adjective for the Neapolitan novels. They are so.. completely, complexly.. human. The book picked up pace and rhythm in the last third. I was glad to be lost again in Ferrante’s marvelous style. Ann Goldstein has done a brilliant brilliant job translating the novels! 🌳🌲 I cannot wait to move to the third book! Once again it’s drawing me towards it, pulling me away from the gigantic pile of other unread books. 🌲🌳 #neapolitannovels #elenaferrante #minireview #mybrilliantfriend #thestoryofanewname #thosewholeaveandthosewhostay #thestoryofthelostchild #bookstagramindia #bookstagram #booksandleaves #booksandflowers #bookblogger

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The Importance of Appearances

Appearances are a key theme in the My Brilliant Friend saga. Marrying in church and baptising children is not just something you do out of religious belief, it’s done because otherwise others in the rione will think less of you. Being smart, studious, educated is as important as being hard-working and “ignorant”, as long as you stick to the character you have created or that your family wants to create for you.

As an Italian abroad, I’ve always heard it’s great to go to Italy because people “look” good, and they act really friendly. And sure, maybe it is true that our country has a bit of an obsession with fashion, and that we’re welcoming, but I personally believe that the need to keep up appearances is what moves us. The need to do a “bella figura” as opposed to a “brutta figura”, with “bella figura” meaning something like saving face, moves us.

I feel that has always been the case, especially for Southern Europeans. Already in ancient Greek literature like the Odyssey or the Iliad, heroes were “kalòs kai agathòs”, beautiful but also valiant. Beauty on the outside mirrored beauty on the inside, a concept that has been passed onto Latin writers and that, I feel, still exists in our country to this day. So the emphasis on looks and behaviours, and on character creation by the characters themselves, isn’t strange to me: it’s a symptom of our culture. Elena’s rejection of herself as part of the rione and reinvention as the smart, educated, hard-working girl who spoke Italian correctly is, I feel, part of this.

Families

I have always found the concept of family in different countries very interesting. Speaking to Southern European friends and to friends from other countries, I realised our understanding of family varies.

When I asked a few friends to edit my novel Bad/Tender, one of their critiques was that the character seemed privileged, but had a constant sense of poverty and uncertainty. Italian friends however understood that and could relate. Most people from my generation are the children of families that pulled themselves out of poverty, and that will always give money to their children or relatives to improve their lives, even if that entails not enjoying the fruits of their hard work. Yet, their children will hear their parents’ tales of poverty and they will always feel it’s round the corner, something to fight against even when you’re relatively well-off.

This is reflected in the My Brilliant Friend saga. Whether it’s children bringing money home to their families, sisters sticking out for their brothers, mothers still feeding their children no matter how old they are, in the novels you can see Italian families at their best. Even when that money isn’t deserved, families are there for each other.

You can see this as an example of why Italians are called “mamma’s boys”, or as an admirable depiction of sacrifices families make for their own. But it’s definitely real.

Rotten Men

In line with the times we live in, the men in Elena Ferrante’s novels aren’t exactly role models. Don’t get me wrong – the women aren’t either. But the majority of Elena Ferrante’s men are selfish, childish, devoid of love and empathy, apparently progressive with an old-fashioned twist revealed only once you fall in their trap.

The mafioso Solara brothers aren’t the ones I’m talking about, however vicious they are. I’m talking about the husbands from the rione, who demand sex from their barely teenage wives without explaining it to them, without foreplay, making the whole thing an ordeal rather than an act of love. Sex becomes so traumatic and unsatisfying for women that they talk about the disappointment originating from the original excitement, a disappointment only discussed amongst themselves, as if they had no right to satisfaction or enjoyment. Consent is always implied, often demanded by the husbands and lovers in the novel, as if once you’ve signed up for the relationship you’ve got to stick through it all, making these stories as current as ever.

Then there are the supposedly progressive, educated men, who campaign for equality but then want their own wives to stay home and look after children. Or the lovers, promising the world and only delivering disappointment and shame. In short, men in Elena Ferrante’s novels reflect rotten attitudes that were rife in the past and that are yet to disappear from ours, far from the romantic, unrealistic idea of the latin lover Italian male that seems to be so popular abroad.

Women and Friendships

One of Elena Ferrante’s main abilities is to depict the complicated, shattering, heart-breaking plight that is a deep friendship with another woman. I must say I haven’t been in such a complicated relationship with a woman friend, but Ferrante’s novels depict that in every shade and every angle possible.

I think what struck a chord with me the most was the unglamorous, almost dirty and shallow way in which Lila and Elena discussed sex, relationships, pregnancy and motherhood, which felt extremely modern and disillusioned.

As mentioned before, Lila and Elena talk about sex with men as a thing they owe, as a desire for pleasure that is never satisfied. They talk of pregnancy as an ordeal, a difficulty, pleasant at times, terrible during others. They are at times honest, at times deceitful with each other. In short, the novels manage to capture the essence of life, the desire to appear better than we already are and the tricks entertainment and rumours play on our head, making us believe certain experiences are better than they really are.

The Writing Style

Some members of the Times’ First Edition group who did not enjoy the book pointed out its length and writing style as a flaw, arguing the story could have been shorter and that not much really happened. Although I don’t agree, I can understand.

As an Italian writing novels in English, I was always taken aback by the feedback I received. Surely long monologues were a great way to get to know a character? Nope, wrong. Turns out what people really liked about my writing in Italian did not translate well to English. Too much thinking, too convoluted, not enough action.

So I think, partly, this aversion for the slowness of the novel might be a cultural thing. Partly, some said, a gender thing, with some women in the group enjoying it more than men. Definitely an interesting study into what people from different backgrounds like and dislike.

Why I Can Relate

I think out of the two characters, I relate with Elena the most. Her desire to work so hard to pull herself out of where she comes from is something I’ve always had, this anxiety to do better than you think you deserve.

I realised it after a while, after hating the character for so long. I realised it when Lila accused her of writing an “ugly” book, a vulgar book with sad, shallow stories. I realised that’s what I wrote too – an ugly, shallow book that wants to depict reality in all its faults.

I relate with the families, with their love and their flaws. I relate with the love/hate relationship with your own town and your own country. I relate with the painful friendships and love stories. I can relate because those four books are a masterpiece describing the reality, the pains, the gains of life as an Italian woman in a very recent past.

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